The exaggerated rumors of jazz’s demise can be put to rest. The second annual festival Tokyo Jazz 2003 showed that jazz is not ready to be relegated to the museum of past musical styles quite yet. An amazing (for jazz anyway) 40,000 fans headed to Ajinomoto Stadium in western Tokyo for two days of music Aug. 23-24. These numbers were even more surprising considering the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival in Shizuoka was competing for ticket-buyers the same weekend. In addition to admissions, the steady stream of T-shirt, book and CD purchases at booths around the stadium proved that jazz still sells.
Onstage, musicians seemed willing to stretch jazz’s boundaries while making sincere, and often delicate, music that had stadium-filling appeal. Tokyo Jazz 2003 reflected musical director Herbie Hancock’s progressive view of jazz as a music that should not be limited to the mainstay of straight bop. A range of styles — from African to funk and R&B to hip-hop — mixed with jazz to establish very different vibes. Each evening, these styles came together in a “super unit” of the day’s performers. These finales may have been a nightmare for the sound technicians (with 40-some microphones to mix), but it was a rare chance to hear individual styles set in a broader context. Though too short, the super-unit finales showed that unplanned spontaneity, no matter what the genre, produces good music in the end.
The hourlong sets also felt short, with musicians just getting warmed up and the crowd settling back in their seats (beer and food were restricted to special areas separate from the seats) before they ended and big-screen advertisements kicked on again. That aside, the sound system was superb, allowing the brush of cymbals, the thwack of bass and the tinkling of the piano to be heard surprisingly well. This quality system in turn allowed several groups, in particular the core trios on Sunday, to interject slow, quiet numbers into their sets. For three of the key performers on Sunday, these soft ballads drew the most applause from the crowd.
Tokyoite Kazumi Watanabe led a power trio that was tailored perfectly to the arena. He balanced his intense, post-bop guitar jams with more delicate numbers that showcased his electric chops. Fueled by the drumming of Cuba-born Hernacio El Negro Hernandez and Cameroonian Richard Bona, the trio had voltage surges strong enough to shut down a large grid, but enough technical wizardry to channel it into a ballad or two. Unlike most rock-out trios though, they never overly indulged themselves with simple changes, but worked at long, careful phrases with tight teamwork. Though Watanabe has released recordings steadily since the ’70s, his work with this trio has to be some of his best, and the smiles on the trio’s faces showed they agreed.
Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band took the stage after Watanabe on Sunday. Though the trio recently played Tokyo Blue Note, the outdoor setting better framed the band’s long, meandering, symphonic-like passages and the larger crowd spurred them to feistier solos. Redman introduced one song as having “a little Wayne Shorter, a little Led Zeppelin and dose of John Cage.” After every thin, elusive passage, they ascended again to a robust boldness with the help of Sam Yahel’s huge bank of keyboards (with a stands-rattling bass pedal) and Jeff Ballard’s flexible drumming. Redman wore himself out shifting back and forth between sax, with some nifty processors attached, and organ, finally ripping his shirt off in the heat before the closing chorus. (Expect a photo of it on next year’s festival ads!)
Undressing is not normally high on the list of jazz gestures, but neither is trippy trance-dancing like that of one fan who was desperately trying, perhaps, to channel Herbie Hancock’s energy. Jazz fans tend to be somber, but this guy’s arm-waving and butt-shaking had the entire front section cracking up. Very few of the rest of the crowd were out of their seats for Herbie Hancock’s acoustic trio sets on either day, however. With drumming legend Jack DeJohnette and well-established youngster Christian McBride on bass, the trio delivered a forceful set of intricate, non-electronic jazz. Hancock’s piano playing moved so quickly between soothing and cerebral that the two feelings merged. The crowd collectively leaned forward to hear the whispering tinkle of his piano ballads and leaned back to take in the fiery attack of his fast-tempo pieces. Their riveting set showed how accessible complex music can be, while not giving in to the pull of easy resolutions and simple musical choices.
Vocals were no less a part of this year’s festival than instrumental trios. (Many in the crowd had no doubt purchased tickets to hear Diana Krall, who canceled at the last minute due to a virus.) Saturday afternoon featured the gritty vocals and intense ensemble of Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour. The otherworldly insistence of N’Dour’s vocals were lifted high by the sharp guitar hooks and multiple drums of his band.
Following him was the funkified hip-hop of Speech, who rose to fame with Arrested Development. He and his band, Funktelligence, injected a good-time feel to the festival, with clever, free-style rapping and plenty of heartfelt politics.
The biggest surprise of the weekend, though, was Chaka Khan, who was called at the last moment to fill in for Krall. With Hancock, McBride and DeJohnette as backup, she used her R&B licks to liven up a solid set of jazz standards. With an incredible vocal range, her phrasing felt fresh and distinctly different from the traditional style many young jazz singers have tried to copy in recent years. Her voice soared over the super-unit finale on the unrehearsed, unplanned jam on Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” The chord changes and deep feeling offered ample space for everyone to make a statement with only slight direction from Hancock. Though a seemingly odd choice, the musical tapestry of poetic hip-hop, African drums, soaring solos, funky bass riffs and an all-encompassing soulfulness was the perfect way to end this festival.
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