KAZUMI WATANABE – Great American Music Hall

May 8

He’s something of a household name in Japan — Swing Journal’s #1 guitarist for several years, guest with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Steps Ahead, Jaco Pastorius, and leader of his own Kazumi Band. Choosing to play in a trio setting on his first US tour, Watanabe had a lot of people in this full San Francisco nightspot thinking, “Eddie Van Who?”

Ponto, a jazz drummer’s Keith Moon, had a sort of wild look, laughing and flailing. With his flash came discipline — he knew when to step back and take stock, and there was great communication with bassist Greg Lee. They handled the rhythmic ping pong of “Add Beets Are Coming” with a solid swagger.

Watanabe directed the musical traffic well, zeroline in on some cues with the stubby neck of his Steinberger guitar. He worked hard at a bank of digital processors, compressors, delays and reverb, that stood nearly as tall as he. During one song, he sounded like a small horn section, then a steel drum. He often programmed some short riffs to be repeated over and over and preformed a mini-Robert Fripp routine. He grabbed at the strings under or over the top of the neck. Dancing, rather skipping sideways, he’d kick a button to release some demon-voice from his guitar, then kick the button to suck it back in, just like Ghostbusters. Watanabe seemed to take some of his airier themes from recent John Scofield, like the slick melody of “Alicia.”

By the time he reached his encore, the blues jam “Half Blood” (from Mojo), which included an off-handed salute to Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam,” Watanabe had brought together Asian, African and European sounds, American jazz and funk, plus reggae, and what a great stew it was!

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