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Tokyo Jazz Festival impresses again

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting in a muddy field is taken as par for the course, and possibly even part of the attraction, at major summer festivals like Fuji Rock. But rain would certainly have put a damper on any jazz festival set in the heart of the capital. Luckily, although the clouds threatened to burst on both Saturday and Sunday, the rain mainly stayed away, and thousands of music fans were able to get the most out of the 13th Tokyo Jazz Festival.

Klezmofobia, Grand Pianoramax and Dimlite performed at the open-air Plaza stage on Friday evening, but the action really got under way on Saturday with two shows in the main Hall venue and a full day’s program of free-to-view artists out in the Plaza.

Opening the first set of performances in the Hall on Saturday was Norway’s Jaga Jazzist. On stage, the unlikely lineup of instruments — let’s face it, they’re aren’t many acts that regularly use tuba, pedal steel guitar and synths — formed a full-on wall of sound that was incredible to experience in the concert hall setting.

The eight-piece opened with a new track and then moved on to perform songs from its “One-Armed Bandit” album, with frontman Lars Horntveth effortlessly switching between guitar, saxophone, bass clarinet, pedal steel guitar and keyboards (frequently mid-tune). The climax of the show was the performance of one of Jaga Jazzist’s classic anthems, “Oslo Skyline,” renamed “Tokyo Skyline” for the occasion.

Back outside, the Plaza area was packed with fans of all ages, enjoying the atmosphere milling between the different food and drink stalls and also taking in the performances at both the Main Stage and the smaller Labo Stage.

Late in the afternoon, Japan’s Schroeder-Headz got the crowd going with its club-oriented sounds — catchy piano melodies laid over some solid beats.

The heat was turned up an extra notch when Cookin’ on 3 Burners from Australia appeared. Take some Hammond organ, add some guitar and funky drums, and finish off with a little spice, and you have a really tight smokin’ mix of soul jazz and funk.

There are a lot of funk bands out there these days, but Cookin’ on 3 Burners are the real deal and with their two shows over the weekend (they played again on the Labo stage the next day), they were probably the biggest hit with the weekend Plaza crowds.

Sunday was a day for some big names at the Hall. Opening the day was The Quartet Legend, comprising jazz greats Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, Benny Golson and Lenny White. The band, with a combined age of 297, played a solid set of jazz standards to an appreciative audience. The high point of the set, however, was a double-bass solo by Carter that demonstrated the full range of the instrument and even referenced the classic “You Are My Sunshine.”

After the intimate jazz-club vibe of The Quartet Legend, the stage was then packed with musicians as Makoto Ozone was joined by No Name Horses to battle it out with Christian McBride’s Big Band. Introduced by Danny Ray, the man who used to be R&B legend James Brown’s emcee and cape man, the two big bands played together before each performing their own selections.

McBride’s Big Band was up first, playing some swinging tunes from its album “The Good Feeling.” And then, for the second half of the set Makoto Ozone and No Name Horses performed an amazing version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” much to the delight of the crowd, which included U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.

Pianist Ahmad Jamal opened the evening set at the Hall, leading a quartet that featured Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley and Manuel Badrena. The group had a great synergy, and cooked up some infectious Latin-tinged rhythms that, in a different setting would have really got the crowd dancing.

As the four took a bow at the end of their set, Hiromi Uehara appeared on stage to present a huge bouquet to veteran pianist Jamal, who was her mentor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Uehara returned later as she was given top billing under Hiromi The Trio Project, which also included bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. It was Uehara’s first appearance at the Tokyo Jazz Festival since 2011, and her sixth overall. The trio delivered a truly virtuosic performance playing selections from Uehara’s most recent album, “Alive,” as well as some other favorites. Always a popular draw in her homeland, the evening’s performance was full of charisma and passion, with the amazing talents of all three musicians earning a standing ovation.

Since its beginnings, TJF has set out to create a festival that is beyond borders and beyond generations. The sheer diversity of artists performing out in the Plaza — from Danish klezmer sounds of Klezmofobia who opened the festival, to the free-form improvisation of Don’t Panic! We’re From Poland (the closing act on Sunday night) — together with the star lineup at the Hall is evidence that festival organizers delivered the goods for yet another year.

On a personal note, this will be my last Jazz Notes column as I’m leaving the country at the end of the month. As an event to round off my own time in Japan, I really couldn’t have asked for anything better. Regardless of whether you’re a real aficionado or simply want to dabble in some quality performance, Tokyo Jazz Festival has something for everyone.

Hiromi The Trio Project featuring Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips, and Cookin’ on 3 Burners will be playing at Iwate Prefectural Hall as part of the Iwate Jazz Festival on Sept. 15 (4:30 p.m. start; prices range from ¥3,500 to ¥6,500).