Jazz is always progressing. When the first jazz cafes began appearing in Yokohama around 100 years ago, nobody could have imagined the world they’d be a part of. Bebop and blues, tap dancers and turntables — the essential ingredients of the genre have evolved, and that is the main focus of the Tokyo Jazz Festival.

“Our goal is to go beyond borders, beyond generations,” Atsuko Yashima tells The Japan Times. Yashima is a senior producer at NHK Enterprises and the brains behind the festival. “We want to introduce and pass on the heritage of jazz, but also bring in musicians who are taking risks and exploring new areas and collaborations.”

This year’s festival, which runs from Sept. 2 till Sept. 4 at the Tokyo International Forum, includes such acts as the Count Basie Orchestra, Sergio Mendes and pianist Hiromi Uehara.

Legendary jazz musician Herbie Hancock assisted Yashima when she produced the original Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2002. The lineup then featured not only Hancock, but musical giants such as Wayne Shorter alongside the Buena Vista Social Club, and homegrown talent Tadashi Yabe.

The festival’s goal of presenting jazz as “borderless” — multinational and spanning multiple genres, yet linked together by that instantly recognizable sound known as “swing” — has led the festival to bring in performers from the pop-, rock- and world-music scenes. It has also led purists to level criticism that the “jazz” label in the event’s name is misleading — but Yashima remains insistent about the sincerity of the festival’s booking strategy.

“The most important thing is simply to find creative, high-level musicians who are comfortable in a number of genres,” she says. “When we brought over George Clinton and P-Funk a few years back, there were some questions about how they related to ‘jazz.’ But if you look at him and his band members, they all spent years playing jazz, R&B and soul in Detroit. Artists like these are immediately embraced by most music fans and all are capable of joining a jazz jam session and holding their own on stage. We want to produce a festival where artists feel comfortable playing with any other act.”

Indeed, last year’s festival featured a collaboration between jazz-guitar titan Larry Carlton and Tak Matsumoto, guitarist from popular rock band B’z. Their sold-out gig brought in hundreds of younger fans who were likely not familiar with Carlton’s work or even what a jazz performance entailed. Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive and many new jazz fans might have been born that night.

This year, a collaboration between famed jazz trumpeter Terumasa Hino and Japanese hip-hop star DJ Honda looks set to bring in an even younger crowd. Hip-hop has been linked to jazz from its inception, as DJs often raided their parents’ record collections for beats and samples. Today’s young fans may not necessarily have had that specific exposure to jazz, especially since the palette for sampling in hip-hop has broadened, but Hino and Honda’s recent “Aftershock” album has fortified that connection once again.

“I don’t play much bebop anymore,” Hino says. “I still have my jazz quartet and perform with them for a lot of my fans who are usually more than 50 years of age, but I want to keep moving and look toward the younger generation. Working with DJ Honda, I’m reaching an audience that may even be too young for me. I like it anyway, it keeps the music fresh. What I want to do is keep collaborating with new artists and make a real ‘global’ music for new audiences. There will always be a place for bebop, but that’s not what I want to explore these days. At the Tokyo Jazz Festival we want to bring this new sound to the people.”

DJ Honda, whose real name is Katsuhiro Honda, expressed similar enthusiasm about working with an older jazz master.

“Of course I knew of Hino’s work from way back,” he says. “I was at a recording session in New York with his son, Kenji, when the idea was first floated to do an album together. Of course, I jumped at the chance. I considered it an honor to work on this project with Hino and feel we’ve really explored something new. At the Tokyo Jazz Festival I want to support him on stage as best I can. While the audience’s reaction is important, I feel that, for me, the process of this collaboration is what the real achievement is.”

Another highlight at this year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival is sure to be saxophonist Naruyoshi Kikuchi and the nine-piece Date Course Pentagon Royal Garden (DCPRG) unit. They are guaranteed to blow some minds with their mix of funky electric-era Miles Davis and Nigerian Afrobeat grooves. They’re also the perfect opener for the festival on Sept. 2, reflecting both jazz traditions of the past and more contemporary world-music fusion. Kikuchi is on a roll recently, and later this year he will become the first Japanese musician to release an album on U.S. jazz label Impulse!, which will hopefully bring his music to a wider international audience.

In addition to that show, Friday night also features a special session billed “Jazz for Japan Live.” Just 10 days after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, music producer Larry Robinson brought together an all-star group of jazz musicians to record a charity album. It was a way for the jazz community to try to show solidarity with their Japanese fans after many postponed their spring tours due to safety concerns. The record has been released worldwide with all proceeds going to charity. Just last month, Yashima called Robinson in Los Angeles and floated the idea of bringing some of the contributing musicians over for a special performance at the festival.

“It was really pushing it with the schedule being so tight, but Larry was able to get it organized,” Yashima says. “We’re proud to announce that Al Jarreau, Hubert Laws, Tom Scott and others who were involved in the CD recording will be coming over for the live event. After so many concerts were either postponed or canceled, we’re excited to bring this group of musicians to Tokyo.”

The festival will end Sunday night with DMS, a group that’s been getting huge buzz while on a summer tour across the United States. The name is an acronym that comes from the names of the jazz greats who are involved: George Duke, Marcus Miller and David Sanborn. Each of them are well known in their roles as solo performers and band leaders, so this collaborative effort is a real treat and one that local fans will not want to miss. Miller has been popular in Japan since his days as band leader and arranger for the legendary Miles Davis.

Despite the emphasis on experimentation, the line up for Tokyo Jazz Festival should satisfy even the jazz purists. Yashima realizes it can be difficult for fans of a specific genre to get what they want from the event, and this year organizers have tried to rectify that by grouping artists into themed blocks with different labels including “Groove,” “Makin’ Happy” and “The Jazz Special.”

“There’s a risk of course in such a diverse lineup,” she says. “But it’s jazz — you have to take chances.”

Tokyo Jazz Festival 2011 takes place at the Tokyo International Forum in Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 2-4 (Ticket prices and show times vary). For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.