Sunday, July 19, 2009


Karen Aoki and The Club Jazz Allstars (Jazz)
Billboard Club

Tonight is my first exposure to live Japanese jazz and I'm wondering what's in store. Some of the essential elements of jazz - improvisation, spontaneity, letting your hair down - seem a tad antithetical to the Japanese national character. Therefore I'm anticipating an entertaining though somewhat polite evening of jazz.

Karen Aoki is a Japanese jazz diva with an intercultural background, having grown up in Hong Kong and Detroit. She and her band start their set with the Billie Holiday/Cole Porter standard
Love For Sale and they give it an ethereal, otherworldly flavor. The musicians - piano, bass, drums, trumpet and sax - rip through it with aplomb.

A predictable but enjoyable version of
It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got That Swing) comes next. It's followed by an interminable speech by Aoki which immediately destroys any sense of continuity or tension the set has built up. This by the way is a regular feature of Japanese live acts

The next song choice is truly bizarre as the band try out a jazzy interpretation of
We Will Rock You. Yes, that We Will Rock You, Queen's pumping stadium anthem. After an impressive piano intro, the band transform the song into a nice, smoochy groove. Then there's another speech from Karen.

Next,  My Favorite Things starts out like a sublime Prefab Sprout outtake. Too bad they proceed to murder it. The horn section in particular sounds pedestrian, though the pianist, whoever he is, is excellent.

As for Aoki, she has a pleasingly husky contralto. I have the feeling that if she really let loose we might see some fireworks. I also have the feeling she isn't going to do that tonight.

Since I'm an Englishman in Tokyo, I'm curious to see how the band will treat Sting's
An Englishman in New York. It's a decent version but seems a tad over-rehearsed and everything's just so.

Life's not like that and neither should jazz be. These guys need to let go and get more abstract because when they do they cook up some exciting stuff. There's precious little momentum, no sense of the unexpected. Instead it's a watered down collection of predictably safe jazz standards.

However, shortly thereafter comes a marvellous surprise when the stage curtain is raised to reveal a huge window behind the musicians framing the Tokyo cityscape below. It's a truly breathtaking moment.

For the encore Karen comes out with her pianist for a nicely stripped down version of The Carpenters' chestnut
Close to You, Once again I get the impression that this is where her talent lies - in a more abstract, minimalist vein akin to the Scandinavian 'cool' approach to jazz.

This was a pleasant evening, but I'd love to see famed ECM producer Manfred Eicher get his hands on these guys and have them push the envelope. Then we might see something transcendent emerge.

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