Power and imagination have been Kazumi Watanabe’s mainstays for over 30 years. As a prodigy on electric guitar, his first release was in 1971 at the age of 18 and his ever-evolving guitar technique has served as the central pillar of near-annual releases. In the 1980s, his progressive and very muscular style of jazz fusion, captured most notably on the recording “Tochika,” earned him international recognition. In Japan, he is a household name.
A move to acoustic guitar in the ’90s failed to jostle him out of his regular position as best jazzman in Japan’s Swing Journal Poll, an honor he has received 24 times. In the past several years, he has recorded works that extend his vision from acoustic technique and fusion energy into extended compositional forms and intense jazz interactions with remarkable collaborators. His latest two CDs, “Mo’ Bop” and “Mo’ Bop II,” are brilliant collaborations with two of the best musicians from Africa and Cuba — drummer Horacio Hernandez and bassist Richard Bona.
Watanabe took time to talk about developments in his own music as well as his vision of music in general in the offices of East West Entertainment Records.
Sipping hot tea, he spoke about his music and life with a calmness that contrasts with his powerful guitar style. Yet, as the interview progressed, he leaned closer and closer to the Gibson guitar he brought along, seeming keen to move from interview language back to the gui tar. As he played a few riffs, even without an amp, his guitar spoke more than words.
Where did the title of your last two CDs come from?
Well, I thought “Mo’ Bop” could mean a lot of things. “Mo’ ” could be more, modern, move, anything, and it’s bop, but also it’s not bop. There are a lot of sounds mixed in there. It sounds new. I also had a group called Mobo in the early ’80s. So, it relates to that, too. I wanted to write good tunes and longer tunes. The songs on “Mo’ Bop” are developed and have many parts to them. I like doing that more than just jamming.
Where did you meet these guys?
Well, I met Horacio [El Negro] Hernandez some time ago. He told me that when he lived in Cuba he had a cassette tape of my record “To Chi Ka,” from 1980. He said he had learned all the songs and could play them all. I was surprised, and very pleased, of course, so he said we should play together. I heard [Richard] Bona when he played on a Pat Metheny CD. I liked his sound very much and got in touch with him.
You three sound very in sync. How did that work out?
It’s just chemistry. We got together, the three of us, and just jammed. At the studio, I just picked out a chord, D7, and started playing. It turned into a Miles Davis kind of thing and got going, so that was it. We just understood. Then, after we played a while, I got some things out that I had written. That was for the first CD.
For the second one, I knew how they played, and had a strong feeling for their way of playing, so I wrote things specifically for them. At first I felt like I was really getting into something very difficult, but then I just felt warm and comfortable with no stress. On the second CD, we knew each other well and could get together tighter.
In the past, though, you always seemed into the technology as much as the feeling.
I always loved “toys.” I used to read the magazines and try to see what Larry Coryell or John McLaughlin had in their photos. I would get those phasers and foot pedals and everything. However, the first time I went to play a show in Tokyo, I had an entire box of these toys. I began to get them out and line them up, but the club owner came out and told me he didn’t allow that kind of thing in his club. So I had to put them all away.
Now, you don’t feel such a need to play with all those different toys as before?
No, this year I turned 50 and it really made me think I want a nice sound. The power is going down maybe, but my imagination is getting stronger. I don’t need to play so fast to get everything in, but rather I want to open up space and get a nice tone. It could be one note. Like in traditional Japanese music, one note is really powerful and important, and can be very mysterious. With the technology, you always know in a way where the sound came from.
When you were younger, you did not think so closely about space?
When I was younger, I wanted to play more notes, and play faster. I always wanted to see how fast I could play. But now that’s very tiring [laughs]. Now the 25-year-old guitarists can play faster than me. So, I want to find a deeper sound. Even if I hit one note, I want to put more into that one note. I want to try to play more beautiful and clean music. When I listen to Paco de Lucia, one of his guitar sounds is like fire. That comes from “duende,” which is a word that means something like “demon.” It’s beautiful, but demonic.
It’s amazing that in this trio all three of you from different places can play together.
One of the great things that was born in the 20th century is jazz, a great American ethnic music. There is a system, of course, a way to use notes, make arrangements, build chords and create harmony. So when I play jazz or blues, I can play anywhere in any situation. It’s amazing I can play with guys from Cameroon, Cuba and me from Tokyo, we can speak and communicate with this system born in America in the 20th century.
The three of you will tour in December.
Yes, I’m very excited.
In the future, do you have plans for another Mo’ Bop recording?
We three hope to make “Mo’ Bop 33” or so (laughs).
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