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Watanabe: All the World's Music Is His Jazz

December 10, 1987|ZAN STEWART

Saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, who has been playing music for almost 40 years, says his primary goal now is "to be myself."

"When I started to play jazz in Tokyo in 1953 with Toshiko Akiyoshi's quartet, I used to copy Charlie Parker a lot," he said. "Then later, John Coltrane was coming up and I tried to chase him, but he was too much for me, so I gave up. So now I just play the way I feel, and try to be honest."

Though Watanabe's first musical love was be-bop, it wasn't long before other styles worked their way into his heart. Now his original offerings--which fall under the jazz/fusion mantle--include blends of jazz/rock, Indian, African, Brazilian and other world musics--and even be-bop.

"People call what I play 'fusion,' but my name for it is 'My kind of jazz,' " he said in a phone conversation from New York, where he had just arrived after a 25-city tour of Japan, where he lives. Watanabe, 54, plays the Palace tonight, backed by Russell Ferrante, keyboards; Robben Ford, guitar; Abraham Laboreil, bass; Alex Acuna, percussion, and William Kennedy, drums, whom he regards as "thoughtful musicians."

The meshing of be-bop and other styles suits Watanabe. "The music on my new LP ('Birds of Passage' (Elektra)) is what I'm looking for," he said. "It's natural to me.

"Though the jazz fans of my generation probably want me to play straight-ahead jazz, in the last few years I have found that I would rather play my own music, my own tunes," he said. "It's more myself. "

Watanabe discovered Western popular music and jazz after World War II. "I used to run home to listen to the radio. Jazz, Hawaiian music, whatever--I couldn't tell the difference--but I loved it all."

His first serious non-jazz influence was the music of Bach and Mozart, which the native of Utsunomiya, a town 90 miles north of Tokyo, started to play while learning flute, beginning at age 21. Then while studying jazz theory at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1962 to 1965, he was introduced to Brazilian sambas by bandleader Gary McFarland. "When we traveled to San Francisco I heard Sergio Mendes, and through our playing and listening to him, I fell in love with Brazilian music."

Later travels to Africa and India brought the influence of music of those lands into his repertoire. "I was particularly impressed with the way the Africans sing--in their villages, in the fields, on the way to school," he said. "I try to have something with an African beat on every record."

Still, the saxophonist said he occasionally plays a straight-ahead club date, "though that's rare these days. Mostly when I play concerts in Japan, and elsewhere, I play my kind of jazz, where I sometimes play some be-bop, too."

Watanabe finds that playing standards in a be-bop manner "kind of brings me back to the old days," he said. "A tune like 'Stella by Starlight' (off his 'Parker's Mood' 1985 Elektra LP) has chord progressions that make me feel like it used to be, but still I try to be today's Sadao. If I were playing like the old days I would try to be just like Bird, and that would make me feel old, though I'm not sure that playing my kind of jazz makes me feel younger."

Also motivating Watanabe is his desire to improve his compositional skills. "When I look at the way Wayne (Shorter), who I think is great, writes music, I can tell I'm not so good," he said. "But at least I feel I should try. I want to write music that will live a long time. Poor music is short-lived."

Though Watanabe has been successful as a disk jockey--his weekly show has been on FM-Tokyo for 15 years--and has appeared in numerous Japanese TV and print ads, he said he would never leave music for another field. "I don't think I could live without it."

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