Watarase offers Itabashi at a spiritual apex.
That Fumio Itabashi’s Wikipedia entry is a sparse four sentences long is a disservice to his years of playing in Japan’s evergreen jazz scene. Championed by renowned world music DJ Gilles Peterson, Itabashi’s work has been recently reissued by the Tokyo label Mule Music. Recorded at Nippon Columbia in 1981 and originally released in 1982, Watarase showcases the piano virtuoso in fine form. With a style that exhibits a constant push and pull between the heavily rhythmic and sweetly melodic, this solo piano outing is consistently driven by his willingness to jump into whatever idea pops into his head with just enough confidence to pull it off.
Itabashi is playful and at ease as he slowly warms into a tight groove around “Someday My Prince Will Come.” With a deft touch, he sets chiming melodies off like chain reactions, each one sparkling brightly before a lightning fast downward run of notes appear to offset the calm. After a teasing intro of pounding trills, Itabashi loosely slides into the main melody in an almost sly fashion — his subtly casual approach belying a keen ear for wrapping compact segments of melody into bursts of energetic and quick fills that can come on with jaw-dropping speed. Itabashi tackles another jazz standard, Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started,” with a similar gusto as he cooly approaches the song’s laidback melody.
“Msunduza” is a bright reworking of a melody by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (aka Dollar Brand), wonderfully rhythmic as Itabashi emphasizes the thunderous clangs of chord changes. Whereas Ibrahim’s original feels more minimal despite a wider range of instrumentation, while Itabashi enthusiastically busies things up with quicksilver melodic runs and sometimes aggressive tempo shifts, all filtered through his gleeful and enthusiastic playing.
Itabashi’s four originals are even more compelling, a true expression of his creativity through graceful arrangements and beautiful melodies. Named after the Watarase River in Japan’s Kanto region, the album’s title track flows between light melodic sweeps and twinkling trills. An undercurrent of rhythmic chord changes holds everything down, gradually leaping between deep bass notes before briefly overtaking the proceedings during a tumultuous and unexpected finale with one final dive back into the song’s main motif to wrap up. “Watarase” has been reworked by Itabashi over the years, sometimes featuring a full band or vocal accompaniment, though it has never sounded quite as thoughtful or serene as it does here.
“Tone” builds upwards without ever managing to peak. Itabashi continually stacks chords on top of each other with an increasing forward momentum, perhaps the most remarkable display of his penchant to fuse rhythms and melodies—it can be hard to tell whether his pulsing bass mash or crisscrossing chord changes are driving the song. “Miss Can” employs a similar tactic, Itabashi working his way around shimmering glissandos and fills that feel as if they’re on a constant ascent. “Good Bye” is the most traditional of the bunch, though that isn’t to say it is without Itabashi’s giddy personality; he persistently spins out the song’s elegant melody with some of his most precise and focused improvisations.
For those only casually into jazz, Itabashi never veers into the sort of self-indulgent jams that the genre can be unfairly stereotyped with — his playing is always sharp, melodically focused and frequently dazzling in both its technical prowess and freeform approach. A hidden gem outside of his home country, Watarase offers Itabashi at a spiritual apex, an album that commands attention through an overflowing of ideas and passion defined by Itabashi’s joyful exultations.