Africa Holds a Special Place in Jazzman Sadao Watanabe’s Music


OSAKA — Be-bop, samba, fusion — Japan’s veteran jazz saxophonist Sadao Watanabe has played them all.

Yet three decades and 47 albums after he began his professional career, it is African music that continues to hold a special place in his work.

“Musically, I think it’s the rhythms” of African music that is most inspirational, Watanabe said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“But I (also) get influences from the people,” he said. The hardship of life in Africa “makes music strong, I think.”

Watanabe says he has been to Africa about 10 times, though three years have passed since his last visit.

“I have many friends in Kenya. Most of the time I go to Kenya and Tanzania,” he said. “They are my favorite countries” in Africa.

Watanabe said he feels more at home there than in Tokyo, where he lives now.

“In Tokyo, you must have many faces for different people, right? But in Africa, you don’t worry about that. That makes you relaxed.

“They treat me nice,” he added. “ I can only say that Africa is a beautiful place and the people who live there are very human and straight and open.”

Such reverence is evident throughout Watanabe’s career. In 1973 he recorded “Kenya ya Africa,” a live album with the Inter-African Theater Group. He followed it up a year later with “Mbali Africa,” another live recording heavily laden with African overtones.

Other releases since then — including his latest studio effort, last year’s “Birds of Passage” — also show his fondness for Africa.

Watanabe said he has been busy doing studio work in Brazil and the U.S., since the “Birds” tour ended last December.

He recently opened his 1988 Japan concert schedule in Osaka, accompanied by a trio of accomplished [American] jazz musicians in their 20s and 30s called “Breath of New York.”

A native of Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, Watanabe likens the jazz audiences of Japan’s two largest cities to American fans.

“Tokyo is more like New York: people come (mainly) to check out the musicians,” he said. “Osaka is more like Los Angeles: more people come for enjoying the music.”

Watanabe, 55, said that young jazz musicians have to work harder than ever just to keep up with the changing electronic technology in modern music — a far cry from the days when saxophonists Charlie “Bird” Parker and John Coltrane affected his own acoustic style.

“When I started out in jazz, we had leaders like ‘Bird’ and Coltrane, and everybody followed and learned from the greats.

“But lately it’s real different because great young musicians have too many mechanical things to learn,” Watanabe said. “Like Marcus Miller. He’s a good bass player and also a good producer. But if he (would) go only for playing, maybe he would be a greater bass player.”

Watanabe says that recording and touring with young jazz-rock fusion players allows him to experiment with electronic innovations from a comfortable distance.

“I never try it myself. I just let young musicians try — I use them,” he said. “Myself, I like my acoustic sound so I just stick with the acoustic saxophone.”

His distinctive sound will be accompanied by Brazilian vocalist/guitarist Toquinho in a collaboration album to be released later this year.

As for Watanabe’s long-term plans, the veteran jazzman perhaps put it best during his recent “Birds of Passage” tour:

“I can’t remember exactly how many times I’ve packed my bags and gone on the road. …I carry several cases of saxophones, a bag with all my camera equipment, etc. From all of this, my music is created and my journey for music continues….”