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Sadao Watanabe & Akio Sasajima

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SADAO WATANABE & AKIO SASAJIMA

Though he's contentedly cranked out less-than-inventive pop jazz for most of the last 20 years, reedist Sadao Watanabe has earned his stripes as the grand old man of Japanese jazz. One of the first Asian musicians to study at the Berklee College of Music, in the mid-60s, Watanabe swam in the freedom-churned currents of the era, adopting the vocabulary, if not the tone, of Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, and even Chick Corea (who played on his first album for an American label). Back in Japan in the 70s he cut mostly light, enjoyable discs, teasing serious listeners with one heavyweight, Recital, which has never been available in the U.S. Its fusion of jazz, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and traditional Japanese melodies and scales has never seeped into his recordings for stateside labels, either. But even those who have trouble with Watanabe's taste recognize his technical skill, his cool but expressive alto and soprano sounds, and his instant audience rapport. He makes an extremely rare Chicago visit this weekend, and those attributes augur well for a performance with musicians who'll push him in directions he no longer explores on his own--Chicago pianist John Campbell's peerless trio with bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer, joined by San Francisco guitarist Akio Sasajima. Sasajima was a Chicago fixture in the early 80s; his thick chords and quick, sturdy lines mark him as a student of the early jazz work of George Benson and a worthy heir to Grant Green. His long experience with both Asian and American culture should let him act as a translator--not between English and Japanese, but between Watanabe's reserved rhythmic sensibility and the extroverted interplay of Campbell's group. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 PM, Lush Life, 226 E. Ontario; 312-649-5874.

NEIL TESSER

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