Image courtesy of t-onkyo.co.jp
While listening to his most recent release Re-Bop, it’s hard to believe that Sadao Watanabe is turning eighty-five this February.
In his first “back-to-basics” jazz album in five years, he doesn’t sound a day over twenty-five. This is evident in the first two tracks, the title-track and “Look Ahead” respectively. Watanabe dances through with mid-tempo breeze, sounding as creatively energized as in his younger years. Here he is backed by American all-stars such as drummer Brian Blade, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and bassist Christopher Thomas (all half Watanabe’s age). Watanabe leisurely strolls though bop-oriented originals with the confidence of an up-and-comer but the heart of a skilled craftsman. Although he’s not blazing through Charlie Parker compositions at breakneck speed like in his earlier records, Watanabe shows his skill through smart phrasing and carefully picked solos throughout.
Ballads such as “Not Before Long” and “I Miss You When I Think of You” have a wistful feeling about them, aided by the stark interplay of Chestnut and Watanabe. The feathery gospel-tinged cries from Chestnut and the emotional frankness from Watanabe prove to be a unique mix that is extremely rewarding for fans of both. It’s hard to believe that this is only their second collaboration (first being Watanabe’s 1999 release Remembrance).
With “Call to Mind” and “Monica,” Watanabe revisits familiar territory: bossa-nova. As one of the leading experts of the bossa-nova craze of the 60’s, Watanabe seems to always have a soft spot for the Latin-based genre as he continues to incorporate it in all of his releases. Here, he and the group take a much more muted and contemporary approach. Both songs are a perfect showcase for Watanabe’s incredible sense of phrasing, improvisational skills, and his noted ability to pick up any genre seamlessly.
Watanabe briefly embraces contemporary R&B/fusion with “Give Me a Que,” a funky New York-style head-bopper that further shows Watanabe’s ability to easily transition into any style he wishes. Despite being a fun tune, it feels rather out of place given the traditionalist tone of the rest of the album. Blade keeps everyone in check with his trademark funk-inspired drumming, a strong highlight of the track.
Watanabe closes off with a simple yet powerful solo performance of “Hana Wa Saku” (“Flowers will Bloom”), the official relief song of the 3/11 tsunami disaster. Although he does not stray too far away from the melody, one can sense the artistry in his playing. He does not embellish the song with needless improvisations. He simply lets the melody speak for itself and uses his unique voice to carry it through. It’s a very powerful and bittersweet ending to an otherwise breezy album.
Overall, Re-Bop is a safe straight-ahead outing by Watanabe that does not bring anything new to the table but solidifies Watanabe’s presence as a respected veteran in the jazz world. True, this isn’t among Watanabe’s classic albums such as Round Trip (1974) or I’m Old Fashioned (1976). But the impressively tight rapport that eighty-four-year-old Watanabe has with his younger rhythm section makes Re-Bop a worthy entry in his long discography.
Nathan’s love of jazz started when he first heard Louis Armstrong’s recording of “St. Louis Blues” at fourteen years old. Since then, he has diligently researched the genre both past and present. His other passions include Japanese art & film. He currently attends the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking, where he is receiving his B.F.A in Screenwriting. He collects too many Criterion movies and vinyl records.