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Taro Okamoto: Too Many Unknown Greats

Peter Madsen By

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New York is full of improvising musicians that spend thousands of hours practicing their instruments and dream of becoming the next Joshua Redman or Joe Lovano. They come by the busloads from all over the world. Many enroll at one of the universities or schools in the area that have a world famous jazz program. They study hard with a well-known artist in hopes of furthering their knowledge and their career. Some come and try to jump right into the scene looking for any opportunity to play and be heard. Unfortunately there is little room in the jazz world for all these wanna-be-famous jazz performers. The chances are slim to none for all but a handful of these often talented and deserving musicians to receive even a hint of notoriety. Some go back home after a few years and become a big fish in their hometown pond. Others move on to more lucrative jobs. And then there are a few others who stick it out in New York through thick and thin simply because they love the music and want to dedicate their lives to the art of being a great improvising musician. It is one of these brave and talented unknown greats that I want to tell you about and his name is Taro Okamoto.

I first met this great drummer from Osaka Japan twenty years ago when I went to my very first New York audition for a band run by singer Carla White and trumpeter Manny Duran. Taro was living downtown at the time in a huge loft near the World Trade Center and Carla asked me if I could pick up her drummer on the way uptown to Bretton Hall where the audition was to take place. From the moment Taro and I met we became friends and from the first bar we played we became musical compatriots. If you want to hear how a drummer can swing and play with dynamics and support the soloist all with great taste, uplifting energy and a positive spirit check out Taro. He listens carefully to what's going on around him in the band always adding something interesting for the soloist to play off of, but never gets in the way and his own solos are creative and clearly organized. Taro and I played together with Carla and Manny for a few years and it was also at this time that we both began playing with brilliant tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh who was famous as the musical partner of Lee Konitz in the Lenny Tristano quintet. Since that time Taro and I have worked together in many different groups. Lately we've been playing with saxophonist David Schnitter who is back in New York after living as an expatriate in Europe for quite a while.

Taro has been living in New York for more than twenty-five years. One of his first important gigs in New York was working and recording with the legendary Sadik Hakim (who is the real composer of the thought to be Monk tune 'Eronel'). Taro has also played with many other great artists including Duke Jordan, Hank Jones, Reggie Workman, Gary Bartz, Frank Rosolino and many others. Taro performs often back in Japan and also helps other musicians get gigs there as well (It was Taro who helped me get to Japan for the first time fifteen years ago). For the past ten years or so he has been working with the Richie Vitale Quintet. He's recorded three burning CD's with the group all on the TCB Music label. The first, which was released in 1994, is called Dreamsville and features Gary Bartz, the second is a live recording at Smalls from 1997 and the third which was just released in October, is entitled Shake It. Don't be fooled by fame or the lack of it. Taro Okamoto deserves to be heard and is definitely great! Go check him out in New York or Japan when you get a chance!


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