Kazumi Watanabe at House of Blues & Jazz, Shanghai

Jenn Chan Lyman By

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Kazumi Watanabe House of Blues & Jazz Shanghai November 25, 2009
It was quite a pleasure to walk into the HoBJ and find an acoustic guitar and a flute onstage. Wednesday, November 25th, heralded a special performance entitled Castle In The Air by Tokyo-based guitarist Kazumi Watanabe and his quartet. I had no clue what to expect when Mila, the House's lovely manager, invited me to attend, except that Watanabe is one of the top guitarists in Japan. Watanabe has been releasing albums since the early 1970's and is described as a "jazz fusion and instrumental rock guitarist." The rest of the ensemble consisted of Koko Tanikawa, pianist; Masato Honda, flautist/soprano saxophonist; and Jiang Ting, pipa. Mila explained that the Japanese Consulate contacted HoBJ for an impromptu performance in a more relaxed atmosphere as a complement to Watanabe's formal concert earlier in the week.
The song I walked in on was a light flute and guitar duo performing Chick Corea's "Spain," one which Watanabe's nimble touch was accentuated by the delicate flute. The next song, Miles Davis' "Milestones," was much heartier, as the flautist switched to a soprano saxophone, its higher register and timbre cutting with a sense of angst into a fast and complex interplay between the sax and guitar. Additionally, Watanabe exchanged his earlier guitar for a different acoustic, though it was admittedly hard to discern let alone describe the difference among the three guitars. On each, Watanabe's fingering technique impressive—precise and colorful. The sax and the guitar began challenging each other, one riff to the next, with Watanabe not only employing a range of strumming styles but also beating on the neck of his guitar. The sax sliced in with a heart-rending melody as Watanabe squinted in approval.
A pipa and a piano joined the stage for "Water Ways Flow Backward Again," written thirty years ago by Yano Akiko. Watanabe explained that he chose this song to match the unique ensemble. The steel sound of the pipa enhanced the depth of the guitar, highlighting the difference between an instrument as tightly strung as the pipa with the more relaxed strings of the guitar. The piano in the background blended well, keeping the listener's focus on two stringed instruments as though they were one. As the tone grew more upbeat mid-song, the pipa became more gentle to match.

Next was "Infancia" by Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti. The soprano sax joined the ensemble, and Watanabe opted for another one of his guitars. The song's beginning notes sounded a lot like the Charlie Brown theme song by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. The soprano sax had a different tone, sounding flat on a few extended notes. The pipa's involvement in the song was a bit light—barely audible except for a twang here and there. Admittedly, the soft jazz feel of this song was not as inviting and infectious as the previous songs featuring a harder edge.

Another song, another guitar: this time Watanabe rolled into a moody flamenco sound, presenting a murderous tango, its violent intent amplified by the doomsday piano chord in the background. The pipa joined Watanabe's dark guitar chords with fervor, painting the wandering spirit of some Chinese Cassandra predicting the end of the world in vain. The flute's haunting melody brought the instruments together with a hint of gypsy flair. Watanabe's a fan of developing mood: the song seemed to switch from a minor to major emphasis as his guitar galloped towards some predetermined end. Soon the entire ensemble was rushing towards the same abyss, the weight of the piano and guitar, combined with the dominant, insistent flute, drowned out the pipa. The last number was by Watanabe, Sahir (meaning "welcome"), inspired by his time in India.

The last song was also by Watanabe-san, "Passy Home," influenced by Xinjiang music. Watanabe hauled out a black 12-string guitar that seemed more electric than acoustic. The song then began with a simple bass line from the piano that was soon electrified by the agile pipa. The twang of the metal-stringed guitar fit well with the more svelte pipa, and after a moody romp across the Xinjiang plateau of Watanabe's 12-string, the sax jumped in with the less-rounded tone of a middle Eastern instrument. Watanabe's agility was even more apparent in this composition. His energy mesmerized not only the audience but brought the musician himself up and off his stool at a few points—a brilliant guitarist, complemented by the sax's empathetic repartee with altissimo notes from the outer edges of the instrument's range. The ensemble came together well for the finale, crisp and in sync.

The crowd clapped fervently for an encore, and Watanabe and the pianist returned to the stage, beginning with a familiar movie standard (with an elusive title). Regardless, too cheesy for this listener's tastes. Not the note to end the night on. Where are Watanabe and his ten flying fingers? As though refusing to disappoint, the piano and guitar suddenly open up their engines, racing down some dusty desert road. But wait—the strains suddenly seem attuned to some misty English countryside. Then, to this listener's disappointment, back to the ballad which, though beautifully executed, lacked the soulful, spirited originality of Watanabe's own compositions.

A flurry of clapping later, the rest of the band joined the piano and guitar for a happy song that had the audience participating with the ethnic rhythm: clap-clap-pause-clap-clap-clap. Apparently everyone knew this song ("Havana" by pianist Koko Tanikawa) except for me. The pipa graced this last song with a animated riff, showing off her skills and getting the crowd even more jazzed. No pun intended, but this crowd definitely personified the word "jazzed." Featuring Watanabe's obvious skills, a colorful song selection, and the rare presence of a pipa on a jazz & blues stage, Castle in the Air was a pleasant surprise.

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