Review: Yoshi Matsubara “Victory Dance”

Yoshi Matsubara “Victory Dance”

17 Mar, 2011 Matt Warnock

The University of North Texas has long had an outstanding reputation for producing some of the best jazz musicians, especially jazz guitarists, of the past 50 or more years.  Under the direction of master guitar pedagogue Jack Peterson, the guitar area became the place to study jazz guitar during the later decades of the 20th century, a tradition that continues to this day as Fred Hamilton has taken over the reins and has taken the UNT jazz guitar studio to new heights of success.  What makes this feat remarkable is that UNT is not located in New York, Los Angeles or even Houston.  It is in the small, quiet town of Denton, Texas, which is an unlikely place to find a hot bed of young jazz talent.  One of the newest rising guitar stars to come out of the UNT program is Japanese picker Yoshi Matsubara, and his album Victory Dance showcases the skill and craftsmanship that players develop as they work their way through one of the world’s premiere jazz programs.

The album features Matsubara’s modern approach to jazz composition and improvisation, with a solid band made up of Brian Girley on alto sax, Roberto Verastegui on piano, Ryan Hagler on bass and Steve Pruitt on drums.  Tunes such as “L” find the guitarist pushing his amp to the brink of distortion, grabbing that modern edge to his sound that is found in players such as Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg and Adam Rogers.  His harmonic and melodic vocabulary brings to light his study of the genre’s history, while making a modern and personalized statement at the same time.  Though he possesses solid chops and the ability to run steady streams of intense phrases, such as his solo on “Victory Dance,” there is also a slower, softer side to Matsubara’s playing that really adds to the interest level of the album.

“Offline” is a good example of this softer side of his writing and soloing.  The song is reminiscent of the great Brian Blade recordings featuring Kurt Rosenwinkel, in texture, groove, harmonic movement and melodic tone, but not to the point of imitation.  Being able to let one’s influences flow out in their playing is the mark of someone who has spent countless hours perfecting their craft and studying their art.  It is only when these inspirations sound forced does it take away from the music, and that is definitely not the case here. Matsubara’s solo on this track starts slow, featuring some nice melodic phrasing and development before he slowly raises the intensity level, climaxing with a series of Metheny-esque runs that the drummer grabs a hold of, marking one of the most intense and interesting moments of the song and a definite highlight of the album as a whole.

Overall, Victory Dance is a solid effort from Matsubara and company.  Not only are the tunes carefully written and creatively arranged, but the ensemble plays very well together, often catching hits and rhythmic motifs that only bands with strong musicianship and familiarity would be able to achieve.  On top of this, Matsubara’s guitar work is highly entertaining, intellectually stimulating and engaging on an emotional level, three things that any jazz record needs to reach out and grab their audience by the ears.  It is not surprising that an album of this high quality would come from a recent UNT grad, as the program is still churning out more great pickers every year than most schools do in a decade.  Even so, it is nice to hear that while they have the reputation for culturing solid bebop players, modern jazz is also encouraged in their curriculum.

Review by Matthew Warnock
Rating:  4 stars (out of 5)