Note: A week after the publication of this article, Tokyo Jazz Festival organizers announced Ornette Coleman will not come to Japan due to poor health.

Jazz fans in Tokyo are already a lucky bunch, but when the Tokyo Jazz Festival (TJF) announced Ornette Coleman as this year’s headliner it became clear — we’re downright spoiled.

“We’ve been trying to get him to come play the festival for years,” says Atsuko Yashima, TJF’s executive producer. “At his age (82), coming all the way to Tokyo for a gig is not easy. We’re thrilled we could feature him.”

Coleman will headline the festival’s “Jazz Roots” program at Tokyo International Forum Hall A on Sept. 8. He’ll join an already impressive bill that night, but stands out as a major coup for the festival’s 11th edition.

The Texas-born musician is now known as a visionary and innovator, but was originally accused of being a phony. His style of soloing, which lacks a harmonic background, can sound shrill to many who are new to his music. This has made him one of the most controversial figures on the jazz scene over the last 50 years, with critics and peers leveling charges that he couldn’t really play his instrument. Even trumpeting giant Roy Eldridge was quoted as saying, “I’ve listened to him high and cold sober. I’ve even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”

As time passed, though, Coleman’s technique and complex musical theory of harmolodics came to be regarded as genius rather than lunacy. His tone on the alto saxophone is a primal, blues-soaked wail that has become a part of the legacy of 20th-century jazz. Even on his most dissonant recordings, the artist’s complete mastery of melody and deep feel for the blues comes through (the latter a product of his R&B background in Texas).

With more than 50 years of live performances behind him, Coleman’s shows are usually unpredictable. It’s common for him to pull out songs from early in his career from albums such as “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959) and “Change of the Century” (1960). His gig at Orchard Hall in Tokyo in 2006 is still reminisced over by local jazz aficionados, and recent reviews of shows in London have been ecstatic, with British newspaper The Guardian calling his gig a “thrilling journey.” Coleman will play with his double-bass quartet alongside his son, drummer Denardo Coleman, and since this may be his last time in Japan, it could be the can’t-miss jazz gig of the year.

The “Jazz Roots” program has the most enticing lineup for hard-core fans. Opening the Coleman-topped bill will be pianist Makoto Ozone, whose Jazz Journey show is set to feature noted musicians Ellis Marsalis, Christian McBride and Jeff “Tain” Watts. Ozone has been playing with the talented rhythm section of McBride and Watts for years now, and his Tokyo Jazz Festival appearance will give him the opportunity to share the stage with Marsalis, the patriarch of one of America’s most notable music families.

Ozone, McBride and Watts are set to extend their festival performance into a short Japan tour as a trio as well, hitting venues in Nagoya, Osaka and Iwate Jazz in the prefectural capital of Morioka, so it looks like jazz fans in Tokyo won’t be hogging all the fun.

With last year’s so-called world acts proving to be a popular addition to the side stages, this year five countries are being profiled in addition to the bigger American acts at the main hall of the International Forum. The Cotton Club and the plaza outside the main venue will feature artists from The Netherlands, France, Norway, Australia and Israel.

Guitarist Gilad Hekselman is Israeli, but relocated to New York in 2004. Hekselman should put on a particularly interesting show as he has been getting some very good press from his gigs in New York, which boasts the most competitive jazz scene in the world. Hekselman will be joined by frequent collaborator American Mark Turner on saxophone for this, his fourth visit to Japan.

“I’m always happy to come back,” Hekselman tells The Japan Times. “I love the audiences, the culture, the people and, of course, the food! For me as an artist, it means a lot to feel that our music touches people and that it’s appreciated.”

This kind of international pairing is becoming more commonplace in jazz as musicians link up via the Internet, relocate and collaborate together. Some critics have voiced concern about a kind of blandness that could come from this leveling off of global scene, which they worry would reduce it to ethnically accented background music streamed in the hip cafes of New York or London. However, such globalized shows at the festival have previously only succeeded in reaffirming jazz’s legacy as an open-minded music genre, and it’s encouraging to see festival planners continue down this road.

Something that has been happening at jazz festivals worldwide that has come under more criticism, however, has been the addition of bigger-name acts to lineups in an effort to draw in more punters. Die-hard fans (and some musicians) have been adamant in their opposition to this trend and want to keep jazz front and center, but financial realities look likely to make the “big-name draw” a continuing part of the show.

Tokyo Jazz Festival does a fairly good job when it comes to picking more well-known artists. This year’s “The Songs” program features gospel group Take 6, soul giant Ben E. King and songwriting master Burt Bacharach. The lineup likely targets an older music fan, although younger customers may be familiar with King’s hit “Stand By Me.” His set will also feature Yoichi Murata’s big band, which should be interesting. King is of course best known for his soul music with The Drifters, but he has been performing with jazz bands for more than a decade now.

Finally, “The Groove” program on Sept. 9 will likely appeal more to younger audiences, with the American-Israeli Balkan Beat Box joining local favorites Soil & Pimp Sessions for a set. U.S. horn gods Tower of Power follow; they play annually in Tokyo and it’s always one of the hottest nights of the year. Funk-rock pioneers Rufus will close out the program with the Tower of Power horn section, and Tokyo artist Shikao Suga is scheduled to join in. That might not make up for former Rufus member Chaka Khan not being there, but the set should still be great.

Finally, the main hall events conclude with the Sunday night “Put Our Hearts Together” program. Don’t be put off by the smooth-jazz sounding title. The name comes from a project carried out by jazz pianist Bob James in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Grammy Award-winning bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding will take the stage first, followed by Japanese fusioner Casiopea3rd.

The Bob James Quintet will close out the night and the set will feature plenty of special guests. One of the more notable names on the roster is Japanese pop star Seiko Matsuda. How she fits in with James and his group is a bit of a mystery at the moment, but as a pop draw she should be a surefire success.

The Tokyo Jazz Festival takes place Sep 7-9 at Tokyo International Forum Hall A, Tokyo International Forum Plaza and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (starting times and ticket prices vary). For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.tokyo-jazz.com.

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