by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad.
For Japanese guitarist and composer Kazumi Watanabe, jazz is more than a genre. It's a melting pot. His definition of the word involves influences from all over the musical map, including rock, pop, classical, folk, dub, prog, and Latin.
He’s arguably the most well-known and influential jazz musician in Japan. Watanabe celebrated his 45th year as a professional performer in 2016. During the last five decades, the electric and acoustic virtuoso has released more than 50 albums under his own name and contributed to countless others.
Watanabe has also worked with many major Western musicians, including Jeff Berlin, Michael Brecker, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Marcus Miller, Mike Mainieri, Jaco Pastorius, Lee Ritenour, Asaf Sirkis, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, and Sly and Robbie—just to name a few. All have acknowledged Watanabe’s precision, focus and devotion to exploring myriad contexts and collaborations.
“Kazumi is a master, for whom the art is to conceal the art,” said Bruford, who partnered with Watanabe on Spice of Life and Spice of Life 2, two late ‘80s jazz-rock albums that also featured Jeff Berlin. “His breadth of skills and depth of creativity remain under-played and under-recognized in the West, although not so in Japan.”
Berlin is similarly enthusiastic. In addition to the Spice of Life albums, he worked with Watanabe on 2013’s Spinning Globe, a fusion trio release that also included drummer Virgil Donati.
“Kazumi is Japan's greatest guitarist,” said Berlin. “He’s someone who can play anything and seemingly has no limits. Recording with Bill and Kazumi was great. We liked to rehearse a lot before we went into the studio to make the Spice of Life albums. We wrote songs and parts together and shared a fun time recording Kazumi's pieces. I was also very happy to play with him again on Spinning Globe. The compositions were excellent and once again reminded me how great Kazumi’s talents are. He also has one of the best sets of ears of any musician I know.”
Watanabe recently released Guitar is Beautiful to mark his 45th career anniversary. It’s an album of guitar duets, featuring Western musicians from his storied past, as well as a younger generation of Japanese players that are pointing the way forward. In the most in-depth English interview he’s ever given, Watanabe discussed the making of this album, as well as providing insight into key historical projects and pathways he’s explored.
What made you want to celebrate your 45th anniversary with an album of guitar duets?
As a guitarist, I wanted the music to embody true a dialog with my favorite guitarists. Naturally, the smallest ensemble setting was chosen to achieve this, which is a duo. For me, the goal of the album wasn’t showcasing a variety of genres or styles, but to create a musical conversation with each guitarist focusing on their unique personality. I think the album achieves that.
How did you choose the guitarists involved?
There are two major parts to that. Mike Stern, Lee Ritenour and the Japanese rock guitarist Char are long-time friends of mine, since my career debut in the ‘70s. Their participation was planned from the beginning. I also wanted to make an album that featured the younger generation of musicians I’ve met in recent years. Jin Oki is an award-winning flamenco guitarist. Shinichi Ubukata is from the popular rock band Nothing’s Carved In Stone. Sugizo, another rock guitarist, is known for his unique, unconventional playing style worldwide.
Did you write “Ripple Ring” for Lee Ritenour and “Soleil” for Mike Stern, specifically?
Yes. I dared to use an older style for both songs to try and express the flow of time we’ve all shared together. “Ripple Ring” with Lee is my homage to our first duo recordings on the album Mermaid Boulevard from 1978. I wrote a song for us called “Waltz for Sweet” on that album and for the new album, I wanted to play another waltz for him. “Soleil” with Mike is a so-called “change of a standard.” I constructed a new melody for “All the Things You Are” with Koko Tanikawa. It produced a Latin feel for the intro and the ending. When I first met Mike in New York City in the late ‘70s, we did a session in my hotel room. We’d play a lot of standards together. It was so much fun. I remembered that and it’s why Koko and I wrote new melodies for the song.
How did you first meet Ritenour and Stern?
I initially met Mike in Boston when I was touring as the guitarist of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the iconic techno band, in the late ‘70s. Tiger Okoshi first introduced him to me. Lee was the producer of my Mermaid Boulevard album. I visited Los Angeles and joined him for a gig at the Baked Potato with The Gentle Thoughts band. Since then, every time Lee visits Japan, I go to his gigs and sometimes we’ve done sessions together.
The closing tune, “Island Hop,” features all 11 guitarists, along with percussionist Mino Cinelu. How did you put the piece together?
It was based on an improvised percussion loop by Mino. Each guitarist took a 16-bar-solo with total freedom, without knowing how it would be used within the piece. They weren’t told which guitarist would follow them, either. After that, I added an overall theme to the piece, my solo and bass parts, along with Koko’s keyboards. Finally, I edited and reconstructed everything to work together during the mix.
You perform The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” on the new album. You’ve also recorded several Beatles songs across your career. What keeps bringing you back to their catalog?
I think the beauty of songs with good melodies cannot be harmed by any arrangement. For me, Beatles songs are what I typically enjoy covering. They’re already classics, and I play the songs with full respect, every time.
Your key teacher when you were beginning your career was the Japanese jazz guitarist Sadanori Nakamure. Describe how he influenced you.
I studied the spirit of jazz guitar with him, rather than detailed technical playing methods. We focused especially on approaches to improvisation, rhythm and harmony. He is 85 years old now, but every time I play with him, he reminds me of the importance of these things. He played on “My Romance” from my Guitar Renaissance III album released in 2006. It’s a memorable tune I studied with him at the very beginning of my career. I wanted to play it again with him at that time to reflect the importance of my mentor to me.
How do you look back at your debut album Infinite from 1971?
It reflects a modal approach I was seeking during that era. The band members were excellent, including drummer Motohiko Hino, bassist Yoshio Suzuki and keyboardist Hideo Ichikawa. It’s the reason why the album accomplished something. When I listen back to the album now, it’s not a mature statement, but it’s a satisfying document of a recording by a 17-year-old guitarist.
Describe your philosophy as a bandleader.
One of my goals is to understand the musician deeply, and if it’s possible, find positive elements about what they do that perhaps they haven’t noticed yet themselves. I’m always trying to enable them to focus on their individuality, not tie it down. It’s also important to me to stay in good communication with them after sessions.
Producer and keyboardist Koko Tanikawa has been a major collaborator of yours for many years. Tell me about her role in your work.
She knows all my pros and cons and suggests how to keep me from repeating myself in my work. She’s the best partner imaginable. She produces my concerts and recording projects. As they say in Japan, she’s my “Third Eye.”
Provide some insight into your creative process.
Recently, I’ve been using my Mac for recording, using Logic and Sibelius as the main tools. I try out a lot of ideas and search for many possibilities in order to build pieces and then capture them. I’m always trying to find exciting melodies, harmonies and rhythms. Composing is a really hard job for me. A craftsman songwriter can compose a composition a certain way, but when I write a piece, it isn’t something that just that falls from heaven. On the other hand, there are times when songs just flow unbelievably. “Kung Fu” was one such composition that came to me very quickly and I was able to give it to the other band members 30 minutes after writing it.
On what project do you feel you took the greatest creative risks?
I think it was on my 1984 Mobo album. The charts I prepared for the session didn’t work at all. Sly and Robbie, who perform on the album, told me they didn’t read music, so I couldn’t use a score or charts. The music had to be built from scratch right then and there during the session itself.
What has enabled you to keep evolving across your career?
I have evolved by listening to all kinds of music. Genre should be irrelevant. I’m trying to use my own techniques and methods for always trying to find new sounds. I’m searching for the most creative directions possible with my musicians. As a result, new possibilities happen. One of the challenges is to discard things I’ve already spent time on, but I try to do this when necessary.
How do you look back at the Spice of Life albums with Bill Bruford and Jeff Berlin?
I first connected with Bill when he visited Japan for a drum clinic. I sat in on the event and we played together. We decided to make an album and Bill recommended Jeff as the bassist for the project. The keys to the albums were Bill’s unique rhythm concept from King Crimson and Jeff’s melodic bass approach. I wanted to bring my Oriental tunes to the project and see how everything would integrate together. It was very challenging for all of us, because it involved completely new material. It was rewarding to work with them. They’re so unique as characters and musicians.
How influenced are you by the world of progressive rock?
King Crimson, Soft Machine and ELP were my favorite bands. Their song construction is very unique and I studied them a lot. As for progressive rock guitarists, Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp are my favorites.
Resonance Vox was a superb fusion quartet you led during the early ‘90s. Reflect on the band and what it accomplished.
I wanted to put together a band of “roots” players—members with strong personalities that could really play and respected their instruments. I thought it might be interesting for these four musicians to work together, because each is quite a character. We made a few albums, but it was a group with four leaders, so the band broke up. For me, the first album is still impressive for its freshness.
You were part of Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth band during its 1983 Japanese tour. Describe that experience.
Mike Stern recommended me to Jaco because he had just joined Miles Davis’ band and couldn’t be part of the tour. It was impressive how precise Jaco’s directions were at every show for the band. Jaco was a true musical director. He was also crazy. Jaco would provide specific musical instructions like “respect space” to the band members. He would also come up beside me and say something like “Play like Jimi.” His words taught me a lot and it was a very fresh way of working for me at the time. This was a precious experience for me as a musician. I was influenced by Jaco to build unique band ensembles for myself. In addition, he introduced me to great amps.
Tell me about the 1981 photo of you with the Brecker Brothers and Marcus Miller that has Miles Davis and Chaka Khan looking on.
After recording sessions with the Kazumi Band for the Talk You All Tight album finished up in 1981, I still had a month remaining in New York City. Michael and Randy Brecker asked me to work with the Brecker Brothers during that period. The same line-up also toured Japan. This was also around the time of Miles Davis’ The Man with the Horn. I heard from Mike Stern that Miles was going to clubs and checking out guitarists, which is how that photo at 7th Avenue South came about. Chaka happened to be with him that night.
Miles came up to me after watching me perform and asked me to play the same parts again. I did and he seemed interested in what I was doing. After that, he said something else to me, but I didn't understand what it was. I got the impression that he was inviting me to a session, but he didn’t say when or where it would be. Later, I heard from Mike Stern that Miles had actually done that. It’s a shame I didn’t understand that at the time. We’ll never know what might have happened.
You're a legend in Japan, but there isn't as much knowledge about you in the rest of the world. Does that frustrate you?
I do perform at concerts in foreign countries, but my main activities are in Japan. I am interested in playing abroad, but on the other hand, it’s a real calling to play in Japan. I have no complaints about this. In the future, I believe there will definitely be more chances to play abroad.
What’s your perspective on the state of the music industry and the challenge of monetizing music today?
My generation has a tendency to think paying for quality products is natural, but younger audiences that pay for music are decreasing. Diminishing record sales have affected me. The emphasis has now shifted to live performance. However, I think it’s good that new technologies have emerged to enable music to be spread more widely. The Internet has given rise to possibilities such as high resolution audio availability and other things not considered previously. I think we’re all still struggling to grasp the possibilities. On the other hand, I also believe the revival of vinyl is a great movement.
When I was young, I didn’t even think about record sales. The fact that I had a hit was pure luck. For younger musicians today, I think they should focus on establishing their own identity instead of just being a sideman. The way to do that is playing live.
Is there a spiritual element in your music?
Apart from music, yoga and mantras are part of my life. I feel there is a connection to the universe through all of them. To me, music is a living thing. Sometimes, creating music is difficult and feels like I’m fighting to make it happen. But I feel that music equals nature and is related to those forces. Perhaps, music is a type of training for me. Music represents a never-ending journey for me and must continue. The unsolved secrets of music are what make me move forward.
Thanks to Craig Peacock for translation assistance.