Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eiji Kitamura * Seven Stars * Concord Jazz CJ 217 * 1981

Old Lads (Eiji Kitamura, Kazuo Yashiro)
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise
Satin Doll
Someone to Watch Over Me
I Wanna Go Home

Eiji Kitamura, clarinet
Teddy Wilson, piano
Cal Tjader, vibes ("Avalon", "Old Lads", "Satin Doll")
Ernestine Anderson, vocal (on "Someone to Watch Over Me")
Eddie Duran, guitar
Bob Maize, bass
Jake Hanna, drums

Coast Records, San Francisco, August 1981 (Released 1983)

1981 was a surprisingly good year for jazz clarinet, as it saw the release of one of Pete Fountain's best small combo recordings, Pete Fountain & Friends (Capitol Records), while Japanese clarinetist Eiji Kitamura recorded Seven Stars for Concord Jazz. Of historic significance, Kitamura's album was to be Teddy Wilson's last in arguably his finest setting: small combo work with a strong clarinet soloist.

Japanese audiences will already be familiar with Eiji Kitamura's playing, as he has had a prolific career spanning several decades, many albums, and television. For those unfamiliar with his work, though, this album serves as an impressive introduction. His playing is firmly in the Goodman-Fountain continuum, but unlike so many Goodman imitators, he is his own man. He has the blistering technique required of the style, and flashes it throughout the album, perhaps most on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." His tone is nicely balanced, with the biting quality needed for swing, but with it's own flavor of dusky depth in the chalumeau. He certainly has command of his style and the tunes, and while he is not a revolutionary, Kitamura is without question a confident master of swing clarinet. I was particularly grateful to hear his own tune, "Old Lads", blending so well with the rest of the set list and reminiscent of such tunes as Artie Shaw's "When the Quail Come Back From San Quentin." Kitamura's take on "Satin Doll" is one of the nicest by a jazz clarinetist on record. In it he goes from laid back to outspoken, from double time bop licks back to confident, well placed statements of melody. Likewise, his ideas on tunes like "Stardust" are never derivative,  and always interesting and original.

Teddy Wilson's playing seems to have been the perfect match for jazz clarinet. Light, yet colorful, never so dense that the texture gets weighed down; he never lost his inimitable ability to both support and step out, weaving his perfect counterpoint to the clarinet. Though he recorded with giants of the saxophone no less prestigious than Lester Young and Benny Carter, his playing never seemed as perfectly balanced, ensemble-wise as when playing with Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall, Dave Shepherd, or in this case Eiji Kitamura.

This isn't a nostalgic album. Each of the musicians approach the well known standards with vitality and a matter-of-factness that indicates their continued dedication to the music as a way of life. There is nothing earth shattering or ground breaking about the album, except perhaps the new ways in which they discover together the endless variations and potential of swing. Having said that, it's one of those albums every fan of jazz clarinet will want to know, of an excellent clarinetist deserving of greater international attention.


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