The Blue Notes Orchestra hails from Hamamatsu and is one of a number of outstanding contemporary Japanese big bands who continue to make it clear beyond any doubt that one doesn't have to be born and bred in the USA to master the fine art of jazz musicianship. Blue Notes is as proficient in every respect as any ensemble I've heard in recent years, and to say it reminds me of Kenichi Tsunoda's marvelous Tokyo-based band is the most earnest endorsement I can offer. My only regret is that thirty years passed before I was able to hear and appreciate the orchestra's consummate artistry.
I received a copy of 30th Anniversary from Hideaki Tokunaga, a superb California-based guitarist who is the guest soloist on Osamu Shiamura's evocative three-movement suite, "The City. Tokunaga is one of two guest artists. The other is trumpeter Tomonao Hara who is out front on four numbers. How good is Hara? Well, I'll say only that he combines the lyricism of Tom Harrell with the technique of Carl Saunders and let you draw your own conclusion. He is sublimely soulful on Lars Jansson's ethereal ballad "Sacred and trades blistering broadsides with a second trumpeter, Shuichi Sawada, on Carla Bley's dynamic "Ictus.
Hara interlaces sharp commentary on Mukai's cheerful "On Reflection and a spirited arrangement of George Gershwin's "Gone Gone Gone from Porgy and Bess. Among the other soloists, tenor saxophonist Hiroyasu Abe is electrifying on "Gone Gone Gone, Jansson's "White Cliff, Wayne Andre's "Nutcracker, and "Time for a Change, which the booklet says was composed and arranged by "Hunk Levy (one of only two slip-ups in an otherwise admirable enterprise). The second lapse takes place in Oliver Nelson's "Swiss Suite, much of which consists of the sort of avant-garde twaddle that may make the musicians happy but gives the listener an earache. On the bright side, the orchestra saves the irksome notes for the last track, which can easily be passed over.
There's one non-Japanese player in the band, trombonist David Keech, and he's a standout on "Gone Gone Gone, "On Reflection and Andre's vigorous workout for the 'bone section, "Nutcracker (with other ardent solos by trombonist Kenji Hirano and pianist Shinya Koseki). Koseki is one of three pianists who embellish a stellar rhythm section powered by drummer Takanori Hinaji and bassist Takahiro Okumura. The names, of course, are unimportant; what matters above all is the music, and in that arena the Blue Notes Orchestra is a championship caliber combatant. A 30th Anniversary blowout that's simply too good to miss.
Track Listing: On Reflection; White Cliff; Gone Gone Gone; Sacred; Nutcracker; The City -- Parts 1, 2, 3; Time for a Change; Ictus; Swiss Suite (68:20).
Personnel: Listed in Japanese.