Sleep Walker at the Jazz Café, London 26 October 2008

Sleep Walker returned to the Jazz Café on Sunday with a blistering set. Although a classic quartet lineup, their music is a loud, colourful synthesis of the best of soul jazz and Pharoah Sanders style spiritual vibes. There’s no samples and no electronic wizardry – just extended grooves that feature the soprano and tenor of Masato Nakamura and Hajime Yoshizawa on acoustic piano. Playing here to a largely young – and Japanese – audience they made club jazz deeply funky again.Live, Nakamura took on more of the sound of his obvious idol Pharoah Sanders with lots of overblowing on tenor and long, sinuous improvised lines on soprano. On record a tune like Brotherhood is more relaxed with trumpet and flute solos – here it was stripped down into a powerful remix that really worked.

Yoshizawa stretched out too, and on the Steinway grand at the Jazz Café (rather than the Fender Rhodes of their earlier Paris show at the Batofar) he created lyrical figures that gradually built into great grooves recalling the extended piano work on another one of Sleep Walker’s stand out tracks on CD, Eclipse.

Drummer Nobuaki Fujii was a revelation. His convincing rock style applied to a jazz sensibility allowed him to move effortlessly from straight 4/4 bombast into a swinging 3/4 jazz waltz – great solos too.

No vocalist at this set but – for me – this only tightened up their sound, allowing them to avoid obvious soul jazz clichés and create a new and deeper sound that was truly convincing. No ballads either and so no let up on the deep grooves. This focus on just one aspect of their music only made a more convincing case for Sleep Walker as one of the best of the current Japanese jazz groups.

For an idea of Sleep Walker’s power live, check out the Youtube clip on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood blog. Visuals and sound are poor but the energy comes across well.

Photos from the Jazz Café show below:

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