There is a theory -- and not a good one -- that the Japanese are only good at copying. Sadao Watanabe proves this is a fallacy and if you want to hear for yourself why, then check out his concert next week in Taipei.
The award-winning alto and soprano saxophonist, who records for the fabled Verve jazz label and has produced more than 60 albums, will appear at the Taipei International Convention Center on Tuesday. He will bring a six-man backing band that includes Masaharu Ishikawa on drums, Steve Thornton and N'Diasse Niang on percussion, Tomohito Aoki on bass, Kiyotsugu Amano on guitar and Akira Onozuka playing piano and keyboards.
Like all jazz enthusiasts of his time, the 71-year-old Watanabe was influenced by the US greats, particularly the stars of the bebop era such as saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker and trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. So, like any other aspiring musician, Watanabe started off playing what he knew, but over the past five decades he has evolved his own sound, through travel, experimentation, innovation and constant jamming.
To say that he is a copy is like equating the Toyota Lexus with a Ford from the 1950s. He took what came before and has added to it, integrating local and international influences, particularly African and Brazilian beats, to craft his own sound. It's a clean, bright, intelligent and refreshing concoction that is light years away from the smokey, often frenetic pace of the US originals. Most of the material he records and plays at concerts these days are his own compositions, not just George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
Despite having marched to his own beat, Watanabe has a fear of influence and admits that his artistic development has been a product of this. In an e-mail interview provided by the promoters of his concert in Taipei, Watanabe said he was aware that jazz in his country had not quite cut the umbilical cord with jazz from the US.
"I feel that the situation hasn't changed for Japanese jazz not being able to free itself from being a `follower' of American jazz. My expectation for Japanese musicians -- and especially the younger generation -- is to establish more originality, a solid identity for Japanese jazz."
He said there was an information overload in contemporary society, so his best advice to budding artists was to not do anything except play music. "If you are really motivated to become the musician that you want to be, put all your energy into focusing on that goal for at least three years and not be distracted by anything else -- no watching TV, or going to the movies!"
Inspired to play jazz after watching the Birth of the Blues, a 1941 movie set in New Orleans and starring Bing Crosby, Watanabe joined Toshiko Akiyoshi's bebop band before studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He returned to Japan in the late 1960s to start his own band, of which several members have become stars in their own right. He has toured extensively and played at many of the biggest festivals and most important jazz clubs in the world, all the while absorbing musical influences. He has become something of a national treasure for Japan as a jazz artist and has played with many of the top names in the business.
Still going strong in his 70s, Watanabe said he was looking forward to his Taiwan gigs. "I enjoy reading historical novels and I have found that in the old days, Taiwan and Japan were very close countries in terms of trade and cultural exchanges -- and I find this very interesting. When I visited Taiwan last time in 2001 for some concerts, I had the opportunity to sightsee at several locations, but this time I hope to see more of the country and its culture."