Toshiko Akiyoshi: Fine Wine
The death of Duke Ellington in 1974 caused her to re-examine her roots. Realizing that Ellington's music was based upon his race, she was inspired to look into her heritage through her music. "I realized jazz had no Japanese heritage in it at the time, so I decided it was my job to infuse it with some. At that point I had been playing long enough and longer than some American players. When I arrived in the US, I could sit in with Miles or with Duke. It was very open, if you knew the tune, you could sit in." Yet she was still unsure if Japanese jazz fans would accept her new fusion of Japanese influences with jazz. "When I wrote Kogun, I was sure that Japanese jazz fans were going to put me down. They're kind of purists, in a sense. They don't even like a big band most of the time. Yet I was surprised more than anybody when it became my best-selling album." In 1999, Tim Jackson commissioned Akiyoshi to compose a piece in memory of Duke Ellington to premiere at the Monterey Jazz Festival. She explained, "I thought it was a great honor."
Toshiko Akiyoshi's Big Band with Lew Tabackin made quite a few albums over several decades before she disbanded it. She remarked, "We never had a lot of jobs, but the ones we had were high profile. In 2000, I was asked to play solo at Kennedy Center. I was thinking that I should get back to playing piano. All of my writing came from my experience as a player, yet I soloed very little in the band. I always played in Japan without the band and sometimes in Europe. Writing and woodshedding is a full-time job. I wasn't getting any record dates in this country, only in Japan. The band played every Monday night [at Birdland] for several years. I did a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall in October 2003. People came from Europe, South America, Salt Lake City, California. That was a very good concert. People lined up for our last concert in Decemberpeople never lined up!"
To play solo, Akiyoshi admitted that she faced new challenges. "My work is harder now than before. When I had the band I was always at the piano, even after hours. Now I have to struggle to practice. I like to have virtuosity like Bud Powell had, but also content like John Lewis. I would like to have both, but it's not easy." She took part in three 100 Gold Fingers tours of Japan, each of which featured ten pianists playing solo and in various combinations. While it was a fun experience, she recalled, "The first one featured Hank Jones, Duke Jordan and John Lewis. But every day your chops would go down, because you only played for 15 minutes. John always beat me to the hall, so I couldn't warm up!"
The process of composing is difficult for Akiyoshi. "You can't use a piano at the beginning, you have to hear, because you're the first audience. My early compositions were vehicles for the player, then it became programmatic music that tells a story. I have to work hard to listen as I think, it takes me a long time. I have a little insecurity. I go to the piano to see if I'm hearing it right. Melody is most important. Pianists develop a sense of harmony. I have no sense of writing melody, so I have to work very hard, so I'll come up with something. It's a long process." Yet Akiyoshi can agonize over small details. "If one note changes, it changes the whole piece. I can take a half-hour to decide on one note. When I was questioned about one note in a new chart, I explained that to the band and told them, 'Please cherish the note.'"
Akiyoshi has been playing more solo piano, along with small group dates, which required changes in her approach. "I always have a dilemma. When I wrote [for big band], I didn't have a problem, because I could always change it, I didn't have to deal with time. But when I play, I always think, 'Why did I do that?'"
In addition to her gig this month, Akiyoshi will play with Tabackin at Birdland in July and in a quartet at Monterey in September. She commented, "Sometimes when one of us is hired, they ask for both of us. ...Lew has his own identity and a piano-less trio with a repertoire that is very different from mine. We both have to compromise." Both Akiyoshi and Lew have developed reputations as wine connoisseurs, as well. "I collect to drink! When I started getting royalties, I spent them on wine." She joked, "Even though I may be poor, I like to drink good wine. At one point, I had around 4,000 bottles, strictly French, though I've stopped collecting. Lew started collecting a couple of years later and knows a lot about Italian wines. He's still collecting, I'm drinking."