"It's All Good" at the Blue Note

Brian Simpson and Blue Note Tokyo's Silver Years

2 DECEMBER 2013,
Brian Simpson at Blue Note Tokyo @ Takuo Sato
Brian Simpson at Blue Note Tokyo @ Takuo Sato

Pulsating rhythms of the drums, saxophone, trumpet, contrabass, guitar, bass, keyboard and piano have been rocking Blue Note Tokyo incessantly since 1988, only seven years later than the birth of its mother club, Blue Note in New York. The phenomenal Tony Bennett graced the unforgettable inauguration in its original location in chic Minami Aoyama.

Jazz was not heard in Japan at all until around the 1920s, primarily in Osaka and Kobe, where dance halls were increasingly popularized and allured striving musicians and ambitious club bands. When the Japanese conservatives in Osaka criticized the heavy American influence on popular music, many determined jazz musicians moved to Tokyo, where beaming jazz cafés (jazz kissa) gradually flourished.

After Danny Bensusan, a mogul empire from Israel, founded Blue Note in New York, he witnessed herds of Japanese jazz enthusiasts flocking anxiously to Blue Note, and envisioned the expansion of his business to open Blue Note clubs in Japan. Japan, indeed, should take pride in being the only country outside the U.S. and Europe (Milan, Italy) to host four Blue Note clubs in the country: Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. Today, only the former two branches exist, but continue to expand their audience scale, moving the Aoyama, Tokyo location to its present trendy venue in Omotesando.

Over the years, Blue Note Tokyo has even further stretched its jazz club enterprise, establishing Motion Blue Yokohama in 2002, Cotton Club Japan in 2005, and casual live music restaurants Brooklyn Parlor and Café 104.5 right in the heart of bustling Tokyo. With the world’s cream of the crop, such as Chick Corea, David Sanborn, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Elvin Jones, Sergio Mendes, Manhattan Transfer, Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole, and an entire universe of the greatest musicians performing at Blue Note Tokyo and its sister clubs, jazz, soul, blues, fusion, bossa nova, latin music, and other music genre have never been as resonating and vibrant as in today’s generation. Not only American, but European’s top music kings and queens as well have, likewise, been making gigantic waves in the Japan music scene these days. Yasumasa Okada, publicity agent at Blue Note Tokyo comments, "Blue Note Tokyo has expanded its selection of musicians immensely, covering not only North America, but also Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and even Middle East. In response to music artists from Europe especially, the Japanese audience seems to associate them with elegance and 'coolness'."

Speaking of “coolness,” commemorating Blue Note Tokyo’s 25th anniversary this year, the ever-inspirational keyboardist, composer, arranger and music producer Brian Simpson, has once again staged his usual captivating performance at Blue Note Tokyo last October, with one of Japan’s favorite and heart-pounding sax players, Dave Koz.

One of Blue Note Tokyo’s regular veterans, Brian has been coming to Japan on tour since 1989, just a year after the club’s opening, when he first performed here with the very much missed and incomparable George Duke. This makes Brian a grand participant of Blue Note’s progressive growth for the past twenty-five years.

Brian Simpson: “I’ve been to Japan maybe twenty times, starting with George Duke back in the late 80s. What happened to George Duke was truly sad. I used to come to Japan with him almost every year, sometimes twice a year...also with Stanley Clarke. I remember playing with George at the Blue Note around 1989. I remember one of the first times I came to Tokyo was during the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Tokyo Dome. Larry Carlton was also there, as well as other artists. Then, I started playing with Dave Koz almost fifteen years ago, and we have been coming to Japan on tours all these years. It’s nice to see that we can still do our music, though I notice that the audience is just getting a bit older.”

Brian has always been labeled as a “smooth jazz” artist, and although this term has witnessed drastic changes in the recent years, he maintains both his subtle and rhythmical delivery in his music.

BS: “The whole infrastructure of smooth jazz has been changing. Since the label only appears in America, a lot of people today may be calling it ‘contemporary jazz.’ When George Benson, Earl Klugh and Bob James first came out, their music was called contemporary jazz. And, we are still doing the same kind of music—same bass, drums, guitar...pretty melodies, funky rhythms...it really hasn't changed that much. But, contemporary jazz was a term that disappeared, and then, became smooth jazz. I think I have a variety of styles in my music. Some of my music are bluesy, funky, or ballads.”

Apart from writing music, arranging and performing, Brian busies himself tremendously with the musical direction of the Smooth Jazz Cruise that has been sailing across Mexico, the Caribbean, and other hot destinations for the past sixteen years.

BS: “We always get a good, large audience in the jazz cruise, and I’m always excited to meet and work with so many world-class musicians on board, such as Candy Dulfer, Smokey Robinson, Dave Sanborn, Boney James, Earl Klugh, Richard Elliott, Marcus Miller, just to name a few."

Embarking on his fifth album this year, Just What You Need, after the giant successes of Closer Still, It’s All Good, Above the Clouds, and South Beach, Brian has taken an exceptional step further bringing together a potpourri of jazz’s top artists to play for him. The new album sparkles with hit songs from stars Gerald Albright, Marc Antoine, Jonathan Butler, Elan Trotman, and a nostalgic rendition of the classic The Girl from Ipanema from the ever-brilliant Dave Koz.

BS: ”I’m very proud of this new album, especially since it has been doing so well in the U.S. The title track, Just What You Need, is always no. 1, 2 or 3 in every chart. And, when I perform it live, the audience is just overwhelming, as it was at the Blue Note Tokyo this time. In the past, I would produce everything myself. But, in this CD, I had help from other producers, which gave the record a bit of a different kind of sound. I think this album is quite different from all the albums I've ever done. Doing The Girl from Ipanema, for example, was a dangerous tune to cover since it is so well known, and I could have only done it because Dave Koz was available to do it, and he was so awesome, and it worked very well the way I wanted it to. I was very concerned about how a bossa nova song would fit into contemporary jazz, but it worked out just right.”

What's up next for Brian Simpson? The American Smooth Jazz Keyboardist of the Year awardee was peacefully gazing at the mouth-watering Pacific sunset in Hawaii after the Blue Note Tokyo concerts, with no time to waste for conceptualizing his next album.

BS: "I'm participating in the Pacific Rim Jazz Festival in Hawaii after Tokyo, just as I always have. I always get inspiration for my music when I'm in Hawaii. I'll be walking along the beach and listening to music in my iPod for my work in various stages of its completion. I put the music in my iPod so I can think about it and get some ideas while I'm traveling. Hawaii is a very special place for me and somehow links to my music all the time that no other place can. So, now I'm already working on my next CD for next year. I'm thinking of a much bigger departure from what I had been doing. I'll also be doing more shows in January as music director for the Smooth Jazz Cruise that will take us to the Caribbean islands. We'll have Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, and lots of other stars on board, and we always have a great time. In late February, I'll be heading to Jakarta, Indonesia for the Java Jazz Festival—a huge event that I've bee going to the past ten years. Apart from that, I have my kids to attend to; I take them to school; and I spend a lot of time now with my son who's also striving to be a musician. He plays the drums. I've spent my career in support of musicians in the jazz world, but these last few years, my own career has particularly accelerated my growth as an artist. I'm hoping to stay in that track, and do more shows...like at the Blue Note Tokyo!"

And, for Blue Note Tokyo, that's easy to predict. There should be more silver years, not just this time, to keep enchanting Japanese music buffs with more powerful, more spiritful, and more electrifying artists from all across the globe, as Blue Note rolls its red carpet to the brim of the golden era! Congratulations, Blue Note Tokyo, for 25 amazing years of glittery, star-studded success!

(Special Thanks to Yasumasa Okada, Blue Note Tokyo)