Blue Notes: Jeff Berlin and Kazumi Watanabe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 3:50pm

The last time bassist Jeff Berlin played Hong Kong was at the City Hall, with a band including fellow Berklee College of Music alumnus Ted Lo on keyboards.

The gig was going well, with neither the musicians nor the audience showing any inclination to quit, when one of the building's janitors, who felt differently, walked out from the wings, tapped Lo on the shoulder, and told him he needed to lock the place up.

It was a surprising moment for all concerned except the janitor and one unlikely to be repeated this Friday at Youth Square Y-Theatre, when Berlin returns with a trio featuring Kazumi Watanabe on guitar and Virgil Donati on drums.

This is a truly international line-up. Berlin is a New Yorker, Donati is from Melbourne, and Watanabe was born in Tokyo. The Japanese guitarist is no stranger to Hong Kong audiences, and in 2006 collaborated with Eugene Pao and South Korean guitarist Jack Lee on the Asian Super Guitar Project album and tour.

Watanabe, who is mainly associated with fusion jazz, is probably the most internationally prominent Japanese jazz guitarist, and divides his time between projects with fellow Japanese and Western players. His debut album, Infinite, was released in 1971 when he was 17, but he made his breakthrough with the band Kylyn and their self-titled album in 1979.

The group also featured keyboardist - and later actor and soundtrack composer - Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was also a member of pioneering electronic band the Yellow Magic Orchestra, with whom Watanabe guested on an international tour.

Jeff Berlin is a bassist of extraordinary virtuosity who moves comfortably between the worlds of jazz and rock:

That exposure led to collaborations with well-known international jazz players including vibraphonist Mike Maineri, who produced his 1980 album, To Chi Ka, which also featured Kenny Kirkland on piano, with Marcus Miller and Tony Levin on bass.

In addition to Pao and Lee, Watanabe has played with John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al di Meola, Ralph Towner and Martin Taylor, among others. He has also enjoyed a long association with Berlin, with whom he has previously performed in a trio format. In 1987 Watanabe and Berlin teamed up with drummer Bill Bruford to record a popular fusion album called The Spice of Life.

Berlin is a bassist of extraordinary virtuosity who moves comfortably between the worlds of jazz and rock: he was once offered - and declined - the bass guitarist's slot in the heavy metal band Van Halen. He was an early exponent of the percussive slap bass style for which Miller - who once said he wanted to be "the black Jeff Berlin" - is known.

Berlin is associated mostly with fusion jazz and progressive rock, having played as a sideman with two former Yes members - Bruford and keyboard player Patrick Moraz - as well as such notable jazz figures as singer Patti Austin, guitarist Allan Holdsworth, conguero Ray Barretto and pianist Don Pullen.

His solo career began with 1985's Champion, a bravura exploration of the outer limits of the possible on the electric bass guitar, and has since continued in the same vein. Recent projects include a collaboration with fellow bass virtuosi Stuart Hamm and Billy Sheehan, a trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Adam Nussbaum, and another trio with guitarist Scott Henderson and drummer Dennis Chambers.

His latest album, Low Standards - a follow-up to 2010's High Standards - has just been released on Random Act Records, featuring drummer Mike Clark and pianist Richard Drexler, and includes Berlin's interpretations of three tunes by Wayne Shorter.

Donati made his name as a member of Southern Sons, and was also one of Australia's most successful session drummers before he moved to the US in 1996. He has since worked with artists ranging from Mick Jagger to guitarists Frank Gambale and Steve Vai.

The Watanabe, Berlin, Donati Trio play Youth Square Y-Theatre as part of the Jazz World Live Series at 8.15pm on Friday.

Take Three

Three noteworthy albums featuring members of the Watanabe, Berlin, Donati Trio.

  • Feels Good to Me (1977, EG Records): progressive rock meets fusion jazz to mutual advantage on Bruford's first solo album. Berlin features prominently in a band which also includes Holdsworth on guitar and Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn.


  • The Spice of Life Too (Gramavision Records, 1988): Watanabe's second collaboration with Spice of Life partners Bruford and Berlin. Peter Vettese handles the keyboards.


  • Made in Australia (2007, Wombat Records): A high-energy fusion album featuring three leading instrumentalists in the field - American Ric Fierabracci on bass, and Australians Gambale on guitar and Donati on drums - recorded live in Melbourne in 2003.