Album Review: Jazz For Japan

Jazz For Japan is a stellar jazz compilation album played by various American jazz musicians (and a few others) for indie label Avatar Records, and under exclusive license to VideoArts Music, Inc. in Japan. In the wake of the natural disasters (earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak) that struck Japan on March 11th this year, these fine musicians got together, brought their instruments to the table and decided to give back in more ways than one. Not only did we receive one of the best jazz compilations this year and are treated to great music, but all the monetary gain from the sales will be donated to help the victims of this great tragedy. This compilation will make for a great buy for any jazz music lover.

The fourteen songs featured on this two disc compilation album (or digital download) are all new arrangements of old standards from heyday eras of jazz bigwigs such as Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, Wayne Shorter, Nat Adderly, John Coltrane, and Jimmy Dorsey among others. The A-listers of contemporary musicians who donated their time to playing on this compilation do a great job of respecting the source material they draw from, it’s similar enough to the original stuff as not to destroy the classics but it takes some liberties in helping it stray just far enough away to make the music feel fresh and revitalized. So, if you already heard these tunes before or even own most or all of them, it won’t be as if you are getting the same thing twice over.

The opening "Maiden Voyage," with pianist Billy Childs assuming Hancock's roll, is one of the few tunes that doesn't deviate far from the original, but that isn't a bad thing. The players feel tight and sound great, but avoid any grand departures. What gives it some new air is its being recorded with newer technology; this isn't 1965 anymore.

The mellow "Sugar" features tenor saxophonist Everette Harp, doing well in the lead with strong support from guitarist David T. Walker, who hits the tune's sweet spot with a short solo near the song's end. On "So What," Miles Davis' trumpet parts are replaced by alto saxophonist Tom Scott, while Paul Chambers' double-bass is assumed by electric bassist Nathan East. The solos avoid replicating the originals too closely, helping to keep it fresh.

"Footprints," with Rickey Minor and The Tonight Show Band, the current house band from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, is the first of four tracks featuring multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Marcus Miller, heard here on bass clarinet while, on the highly revered golden age standard, "Body and Soul," Miller takes the lead beautifully on electric bass, with pianist Herman Jackson's light touch complimenting him nicely.

Surprisingly, there is only one Japanese artist featured in the set, but it's definitely a good one. Keiko Matsui has been internationally active for the past thirty years, with twenty albums to her credit. Here, the acclaimed pianist performs "Cold Duck Time," which also marks the only appearance of saxophonist Boney James, who helps spice things up on this hip track with a driving pace.

The rest of the set is more or less on par, with disc one feeling a wee bit stronger than disc two, though that's not to suggest the second disc is weak. The overall scope of Jazz for Japan hits a mark of quality and production which is often hard to find amongst the abundance of mediocre jazz releases these days.

For righteousness and for good music, you now have two reasons to go out and buy this album on CD or iTunes download without hesitation.

Excerpts from the CD jewel case back cover

“We have a wonderful relationship with the Japanese people – so many are my friends. A disaster like this hits home for me. Because for some people they see what happens in Japan on TV it’s so far away, almost not real. But for us it’s real – I mean I have been to Tokyo more times than I’ve been to Atlanta. I know the people, I know the places.” – Marcus Miller

“The Jazz For Japan project came about as a result of a discussion regarding the tragic circumstances resulting from the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. My co-workers and I also discussed how the Japanese people have been loyal supporters of Jazz for over 50 years. It was then I thought this project could be a “musical love letter” by many top jazz musicians to the people of Japan. These jazz musician’s love the people of Japan and want to show their support in Japan’s time of need.” – Larry Robinson / Producer

Disc One

1. Maiden Voyage
Steve Gadd (Drums), Tom Scott (Sax), Billy Childs (Piano), Nathan East (Bass), Everette Harp (Sax)

2. Sugar
Everette Harp (Sax), Clarence McDonald (Piano), Ndugu Chancler (Drums), David T. Walker (Guitar), Del Atkins (Bass)

3. So What
Nathan East (Bass), Steve Gadd (Drums), Tom Scott (Sax), Billy Childs (Piano), Everette Harp (Sax)

4. Sophisticated Lady
Christian McBride (Bass) and Billy Childs (Piano)

5. Footprints
Ricky Minor & The Tonight Show Band, Feat. Marcus Miller (Bass Clarinet), Wayne Linsey (Piano), Paul Jackson Jr. (Guitar), Teddy Campbell (Drums), David Delhomme (Electric Piano), Kevin Ricard (Percussion), Raymond Monterio (Trumpet), Miguel Gandelman (Tenor Sax), Garret Smith (Trombone), Randy Ellis (Alto Sax)

6. Work Song
George Duke (Electric Piano), Steve Gadd (Drums), Tom Scott (Sax), Billy Childs (Piano), Nathan East (Bass)

Disc Two

1. What A Wonderful World
Clarence McDonald (Piano), Ndugu Chancler (Drums), Marcus Miller (Bass), David T. Walker (Guitar)

2. Mr. PC
Deron Johnson (Piano), Larry Goldings (Organ), Chuck Berghofer (Bass), Peter Erskine (Drums)

3. Body & Soul
Marcus Miller (Bass and Bass Clarinet – not a bassoon), Herman Jackson (Piano)

4. Cold Duck Time
Boney James (Sax), Keiko Matsui (Piano), Ricky Minor (Bass), Tom Brechtlein (Drums), David Paich (Electric Piano)

5. Watermelon Man
Clarence McDonald (Piano), Ndugu Chancler (Drums), Lee Ritenour (Guitar), Marcus Miller (Bass), Kenny G. (Soprano Sax), Everette Harp (Tenor Sax)

6. Invitation
Peter Erskine (Drums), Christian McBride (Bass), Billy Childs (Piano)

7. Cantaloupe Island
Alex Acuña (Drums & Congas), Alphonso Johnson (Bass), Herman Jackson (Piano), Clarence McDonald (Electric Piano)

8. I’m Glad There Is You
Performed by Bob James

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Marc Antomattei