The packed house that greeted Sadao Watanabe at NBew York's Blue Note in August, 2008 was a testament to both his popularity and the rarity of his visits to America. Now in his mid-70s, Watanabe is still an impressive alto sax man who plays with confidence and a heartwarming sentimentality. He was appearing in conjunction with the release of Basie’s at Night, a double live CD recorded in Japan in 2007, with pianist Akira Onozuka, bassist Koichi Osamu, drummer Masaharu Ishikawa and percussionist N’diasse Niang.
Bebop is Watanabe’s primary influence, evident from the opening tune of the album, “One for You,” which he plays reverently. Onozuka’s eloquence complements Watanabe’s irrepressible optimism on “Plum Island,” although Ishikawa’s drum solo doesn’t quite hit the mark. Watanabe imbues ballads like “Deep in a Dream” and “Call Me” with deep emotion and a touch of pathos while the vibrant “See What Happens,” which sounds like “Oleo” with elements of “Salt Peanuts,” is a showcase for the entire band.
Watanabe also effectively combines the African and bebop genres on the excellent medley “Alalake”/”Lopin,” with vocals by Niang. “Maji” is another African-influenced Watanabe original, with a dynamic tête-à-tête between Niang and Ishikawa. The band even indirectly touches on spirituals via the joyous “Harambee,” strongly reminiscent of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Watanabe enhanced the Blue Note lineup by adding an electric keyboard to Onozuka’s piano; Kiichiro Komobuchi replaced Osamu on electric bass and Jun Kajiwara was added on guitar. These changes broadened the music and showed that Watanabe has moved with the times. While the resulting fusion-based tunes the band played were well received, the straight-ahead tunes were better. The selections from from the album were well done, in particular the version of “Tembea” (The Blue Note version of “See What Happens” had an unexpected improv: what sounded initially like someone urging the band on was actually the protests of an inebriated and unruly man being dragged out of the club). Onozuka and Ishikawa and Niang were in fine form and Watanabe sounded excellent. The saxophonist closed the show as he ended the disc, with “Carinhoso,” a lovely duet with Onozuka that he dedicated to his grateful audience.
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