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Mamiko Watanabe at Fat Cat's, NYC

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Mamiko Watanabe
Fat Cat Club
New York City, New York
November 7, 2007
Mamiko Watanabe is a wonderful jazz pianist, who is simply fun to watch in performance. She is a little woman—probably no more than 98 pounds but certainly 98 pounds of dynamite! It was Lyn Christie, a string bassist who once performed with Chick Corea, to whom I owe a phrase "not afraid to be original. Mamiko is such a person. She may not let it show, but as an experienced musician who's been there, I know how much work goes into organizing a group and getting them to perform original music. It requires effort, perseverance and even courage.
Watanabe does not create studio music where the composer sticks to 8th-note patterns and formula-type music as in pop and country music. Instead she reaches for the music's essence, a search for the freedom of the spirit within each individual. This is the highest goal of life and music, yet so many who try to reach it lack the belief in themselves to do so. When I started out in music, there were not many women in jazz— only singers and a few pianists. Today, however, we have many young women instrumentalists such as Watanabe, not simply proving themselves but creating wonderful sounds in search of the joy of the life that is in musical art.

Mamiko Watanabe was featured with a quartet of top New York musicians during her engagement at Fat Cat—presenting her piano stylings in the company of bassist Erik Privert and drummer Ferenc Nemeth along with tenor saxophonist Karel Ruzicka. Immediately apparent was her strong rhythmic sense and comprehensive, deep knowledge of Latin rhythms, which she integrated in her playing with traditional jazz harmonies.

Some of her chord progressions were very original, keeping the acoustic bassist's and saxophonist's eyes open. She did not always stick to the 32 bar or 12 bar song form, instead arranging her music with exacting care and having many sections, not simply a conventional main melody (chorus) and secondary one (bridge). Some of her tunes concluded with a strong vamp and drum solo, building into a climax and powerful cadence. Especially impressive, at least to another composer and woodwind player, was her balance between the left hand chords and the right hand melody. She has a clear sense of how to keep a proper balance among the elements of sound, rhythm and melody. Many pianists are completely confused when it comes to an equal emphasis on all three or simply do not understand how to coordinate the left hand with the right.

Frequently, pianists as well as guitar players will "overplay," refusing to accept the limits of their instruments. Watanabe isn't afraid to use horn players in her music, assigning them the melodic lead as well as ample solo space. She let the horn player play his heart out and blow with as much freedom as he could, bringing to this reviewer's mind the playing of Dave Brubeck's great altoist, Paul Desmond.

Watanabe has a solid musical foundation and clear understanding of her form, rhythm and compositional intent. She does a few standards along with her original music, which is a mix of straight-ahead playing and Latin rhythms with free form sections and vamps. Sometimes all of these approaches are evident in the same composition, though there is always ample room for each of the players to solo.

It's safe to say that Mamiko Watanabe is a pianist worth noticing and listening to. There are so many wonderful young musicians on the music scene today that it can be a challenge simply deciding which ones are most deserving of the listener's valuable time and continued support. In the case of Mamiko Watanabe, the decision should be an easy one.

Photo Credit

Greg Henry Waters

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