Jazzing up the industrial city


Special To The Japan Times

On one side you have Montreux, a Swiss resort town on the banks of Lake Geneva that has seen many famous residents over the years, and which has been immortalized in the lyrics of the Deep Purple song “Smoke On The Water.” On the other you have a Japanese city in the heart of the world’s most heavily populated urban conglomeration, known for its heavy industry and whose name is familiar to people the world over as a motorbike marque. At first glance these two places may come across as something of an odd couple, but recently they’ve been getting along just fine, and this month sees Kawasaki hosting the Montreux Jazz Festival Japan (MJFJ) for the second time.

Conceived by Claude Nobs, the first Montreux Jazz Festival (MJF) was held in 1967 at the Montreux Casino. A success from the very start, it is now one of the biggest music events in the world and has expanded its appeal beyond the realm of jazz.

More than 45 years on, Nobs is still the general manager of the festival and actively involved in the running of the event, though the main venue is no longer the casino that inspired the lyrics of the Deep Purple classic.

The first buds of the blossoming relationship between the MJF and Japan emerged some 20 years ago. In 1991, Sony became a sponsor of MJF and made history by recording the entire festival in high definition audio and video — the first time this had been done at any of the world’s major jazz festivals.

A key part of the Sony Europe team at that time was Shohachi Sakai, and through his work on MJF he became a close friend of Nobs and the festival committee. It’s a relationship that has continued to the present day.

After returning to Japan, Sakai set up Montreux Jazz Festival Japanese Holding Bureau (MJFJHB) and Montreux Sounds Entertainment, by which he could produce events, merchandise and even jazz cafes under the Montreux Jazz brand in Japan.

Hiromi Miyamoto, one of the producers at MJFJHB, takes up the story: “One afternoon in August of 2009, I was at a meeting with both Shohachi Sakai and Yuko Toda (another producer), when Sakai announced that he wanted to stage a Montreux Jazz Festival somewhere in Japan, an event that would have the same objectives and spirit as the original.”

In a subsequent meeting, Miyamoto suggested Kawasaki, the city where he had spent most of his life. “Sandwiched between Tokyo and Yokohama,” he says, “Kawasaki was famous as an industrial zone, particularly during the era of economic expansion and consequently became associated with pollution. I found it frustrating that while there were many events in Tokyo and Yokohama, there wasn’t anything in Kawasaki, especially as Kawasaki is now promoting itself as a ‘City of Music’. With Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall and two music universities, I thought the city would be an ideal location.”

After openly admitting that Kawasaki wasn’t an option that initially sprang to mind, Sakai warmed to Miyamoto’s idea, and the MJFJHB team then put together a proposal and approached city officials. At first the idea was received cooly, but after some discussion the city started to see an opportunity, and toward the end of 2010 an executive committee was established with a view to holding a festival in 2011.

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, had an impact on the inaugural MJFJ in a number of ways. Firstly, the ceiling of Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall, one of the proposed venues, collapsed during the temblor. In the disaster’s aftermath, a number of musicians from overseas cancelled visits to Japan and some of the original sponsors also withdrew.

Despite these setbacks, the decision was made to push ahead and hold the event. Nobs’ hope was for MJFJ to provide “a bouquet of sound that will bring excitement and smiles to the people.” Furthermore the Japanese executive committee felt that by holding the event, in addition to being something the people could enjoy, it could help revitalize the local economy as well as put the city firmly on the cultural map.

The first MJFJ in Kawasaki took place last November and was deemed a success. Nobs himself, together with his successor-elect Mathieu Jaton and Alexandre Edelman from the Swiss MJF committee, visited the festival and singled out the efforts of Sakai and Kawasaki Mayor Takao Abe for making it happen.

Yasuaki Kasahara, a spokesperson for this year’s MJFJ event who is also in charge of promoting Kawasaki as a “City of Music,” tells The Japan Times: “Last year we attracted around 7,000 visitors, with world-class artists in addition to local performers. This year we have expanded the festival from five days to nine and a number of big artists will be coming to Japan to perform.

“We felt that it’s important we had a lineup that was worthy of the Montreux Jazz name,” he continues, “and so we have some performances from some of the world’s leading artists as well as Japanese artists active both here and overseas.”

This year’s festival takes place Nov. 16-24 at a number of different locations throughout the city. The organizers have played it safe with much of the interntaional lineup inviting artists from the smoother end of the jazz spectrum such as David Sanborn (Nov. 23), Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin (Nov. 21), and Michel Camilo and Tomatito (Nov. 16), all seasoned visitors to these parts who are guaranteed a good turnout. In addition, there will be two chances to enjoy the exciting big-band sound of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw from the Netherlands (Nov. 16 and 21).

Among the Japanese artists due to perform at the festival are the Masahiro Sayama Quintet (Nov. 18), Masato Honda and BB Station (Nov. 23), familiar names on this country’s jazz circuit.

Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda may not yet be a household name in Japan, but he has steadily been building a reputation in the keenly competitive New York jazz scene. He’s lived there since 2003, has appeared in numerous sessions, and is vocalist Jose James’ trumpeter of choice as well as a bandleader in his own right. Kuroda will bring his star-studded New York sextet with him to the Senzoku Gakuen Maeda Hall (Nov. 22) for what should be one of the better shows of the festival.

The “Club Jazz Party Night” at Club Citta on Nov. 20 is bound to attract a younger, more dance-oriented crowd, with a total of six bands on the bill. Jazz Collective has made a splash both domestically and overseas with the crossover sound of its self-titled debut album, and is guaranteed to give a good show. Piano trio Fox Capture Plan, on the other hand, will offer a slightly more hard-hitting rock-tinged set. Sax player Tomoyoshi Nakamura will be appearing twice — once with Native, playing some slick club jazz and again with BlackQP ’67 who will offer some Hammond-driven mod jazz sounds.

In the runup to the festival proper, there will be a number of smaller events put on around the city, and MJFJ staged a series of jazz lectures in the month before the festival.

Kasahara is positive about the moves.

“We hope that MJFJ in Kawasaki will continue to attract artists and tourists both from overseas as well as from within Japan,” he says. “In addition to attracting first-class international and domestic artists, we hope that the festival can also act as a platform for new talent.”

This year’s lineup for the festival is certainly in keeping with hopes and is likely to appeal to a wide range of age groups. The challenge for the future, however, will be to see if the event can grow to become as much of an essential part of the jazz calendar as its illustrious Swiss counterpart.

The Montreux Jazz Festival Japan takes place at various venues in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, from Nov. 16-24. Tickets prices vary depending on the show. For more information, call the ticket center at (044) 222-5800 or visit www.montreuxjazz.jp/kawasaki .