Sadao Watanabe and Hendrik Meurkens promise a jazzy afternoon double bill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm

Jazz is usually associated with late nights, but the double bill of Hendrik Meurkens and the Sadao Watanabe Group should still draw a full house at their Jazz World Live concert this afternoon.

Saxophonist Watanabe has a strong local following, especially for his bossa nova and fusion recordings, although he started out as - and remains at heart - a bebopper. Born in 1933, Watanabe is the elder statesman of jazz in Japan. He first heard the music on American forces radio immediately after the second world war, and later was inspired by Charlie Parker.

Watanabe was well established as a saxophonist and bandleader when, in 1962 at the age of 29, he went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship. "I had a great experience," he recalls. Shortly after arriving in New York, before even travelling to Boston, he was sitting in with Charles Mingus' band.

Watanabe toured Brazil in 1965 with composer-vibraphonist Gary McFarland and, having previously despised bossa nova - "I was a hard bebopper" - he began to appreciate its subtleties. He studied Brazilian music for four years and when he returned to Japan, he began to balance his recording dates and concert appearances with a parallel career as a music educator. His base is still Japan, but he continues to tour internationally, particularly in the US, where a modest audience appreciates his bebop playing, and a much larger one buys the many Brazilian and fusion albums he has made over the years.

Even Watanabe's most overtly commercial recordings are notable for the intelligence and elegant melodicism of his playing. He has worked with some of the biggest names in American jazz, but likes to give his countrymen exposure to audiences around the world, and so travels mostly with Japanese players.

His band this afternoon at the Baptist University's AC Hall comprises Akira Onozuka on piano and keyboards, Takashi Yofu on electric guitar, Kichiro Komobuchi on electric bass, Masaharu Ishikawa on drums and Senegal's N'diasse Niang on percussion.

Now 82, Watanabe no longer plays the flute or soprano saxophone - " I don't have time to practise" - but concentrates on the alto saxophone, his first love. "I think my horn sound is the best it has been in my life right now," he says.

Harmonica player and vibraphonist Meurkens has also immersed himself in Brazilian music, and appears at the AC Hall with his Samba Jazz East band, warming up for concerts at next week's Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta.

Meurkens will play a short set from 4pm to 4.45pm. Watanabe will take the stage at 5.30pm and is expected to play until 7pm. Tickets are available from Cityline and Tom Lee outlets.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Arts Festival is under way, and the first performance of its jazz/world music component will take place on Friday featuring an all-female ensemble, the Barefoot Divas. The members hail from Australasia - New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea - and all are singer-songwriters. They will perform a show titled "Walk a Mile in My Shoes", which includes poetry and spoken prose as well as song. The lyrics are in aboriginal languages, English and Spanish.

The spotlight is on the divas: Emma Donovan and Ursula Yovich from Australia, Whirimako Black, Maisey Rika and Merenia Gillies from New Zealand, and Ngaiire from Papua New Guinea. But the band, who are required to perform in a variety of styles stretching from Latin jazz to acoustic roots, sound equally interesting, and comprise musicians from Chile, Sicily, Greece and New Zealand.

Next, the Singapore International Jazz Festival, which runs from Thursday to March 8 at the Marina Bay Sands, is a good reason for heading there for a long weekend. Artists appearing there include composer-vibraphonist Roy Ayers, trumpeter Chris Botti, saxophonist-clarinettist Courtney Pine, pianist Ramsey Lewis, the Brand New Heavies, the Jazz Blues Brothers and singer Bobby McFerrin, who will also be appearing for two HKAF shows on March 13 and 14.

Most of those artists will also have played the Java Jazz Festival. It's a shame we don't have a strategically timed festival here to take advantage of a few more of those artists' touring itineraries.

Take Three

Three noteworthy albums by Sadao Watanabe.

  • Round Trip (1976, Vanguard): a strong set of original Watanabe compositions, recorded in the heavyweight company of Chick Corea on piano, Miroslav Vitous on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
  • I'm Old Fashioned (1976, Sony): this impressive small group set comprises three Watanabe compositions and five standards, recorded with Hank Jones on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.
  • Remembrance (1999, Verve): Watanabe more than holds his own in the company of a group of then rising stars which includes Nicholas Payton on trumpet and - critically - Christian McBride on bass. Although more than 20 years younger than Watanabe, trombonist Robin Eubanks also makes a telling contribution.