Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-3, June 25-27, 2009
It would have been enough that 79-year-old pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and her trio put on what may turn out to be the sleeper hit of the festivalwith the show far exceeding even the best expectationsbut for the diminutive Japanese expat, it was about more than just the performance. While the trio navigated its way through a set of challenging mainstream charts (largely Akiyoshi originals) with great energy, nuance and grace, Akiyoshi's spoken introductions to the tunes were equally compelling.
Akiyoshi spent some time explaining how, growing up in Japan in her time (1929-1945), access to jazz music was very limited, and so, at the age of 16, she left for the United States in order to discover "my own idiosyncrasies," as she put it. It was later, in Paris, that she met and became a protegé of legendary pianist Bud Powell, and it was a life-changing experience that has been a part of her makeup ever since. Her anecdotes engrossed the audience and built a warm rapport that made the material she played all the more meaningful, especially the set closer, "Hope," the epilogue of a larger suite commissioned about Hiroshima but, taking place around the time of 9/11, a cautiously uplifting piece that took on even greater significance.
l:r: Mark Taylor, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Paul Gill
Akiyoshi also possessed a comedic tinge, giving an impromptu instruction to drummer Mark Taylora British expat now living in New York but spending much of his time in Japan these daysto play four bars ahead of the group coming in, turning to the audience and saying, "this is what we call 'instant arrangement.'"
As engaging as she was with the audience, her music was even more so. Most people who know Akiyoshi think of her longtime relationship with saxophonist/flautist Lew Tabackin and their Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band from the 1970s, but since 2003 she's returned to her activity of the 1950s, focusing more on small ensembles and solo performance reminiscent of her appearance in Concord's Maybeck Recital Hall Series (Volume 36, 1994). Her writing reflected the return to small ensemble and solo work with a number of unaccompanied solo piano passages worked into the material. Surprisingly powerful, Akiyoshi's most distinguishing "idiosyncracy" may well be her ability to create tight arrangements that, nevertheless, manage to breathe and, most importantly, swing. Whether it was on the bright and fiery "Long Yellow Road" or the at times subtle, at times boldly dramatic "Remembering Bud," Akiyoshi's flexibility and remarkable technique captured the near-capacity audience, with each successive solo receiving more applause, whoops and hollers than the last.
Akiyoshi chose two terrific players to round out her trio. Taylor, pianist Monty Alexander's drummer for the greater part of the past ten years or so, was a remarkably crisp drummer whose ears were wide open throughout, and he delivered a number of outstanding solosespecially his intro to "Drum Conference, Third Movement," part of a larger suite Akiyoshi was commissioned to write for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in 2001. While Taylor couldn't replicate the sound of the Taiko drums she used in the original performance, he did manage to evoke the feel of these large oriental drums in a solo of great dynamic breadth. Bassist Paul Gill was a firm but flexible anchor who also received a number of fine feature spots, delivered with lithe ingenuity, and excelled at working with Taylor to maintain the swing, even through some of Akiyoshi's more difficult charts.
Every year the festival has a show or three that fall into the category of "talked about, wish I was there." Those in attendance at the Akiyoshi Trio show witnessed an early contender for most memorable show of the year, while those who didn't may well have to live vicariously through the eyes and ears of those who did.
With 2009 the 50th anniversary of a number of seminal jazz albums, it's no surprise that tributes and reissues have been flowing hot and heavy this year. Amongst the best would have to be drummer Jimmy Cobbwho accompanied singer Roberta Gambarini the previous eveningand his So What Band paying tribute, on the year of its 50th anniversary, to one of jazz's most definitive, enduring and seminal records, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). Cobb is the only remaining participant on that record still alive, and he put together a crack band that saluted Kind of Blue, doing so in a way that was reverent but not imitative.
Opening with the classic "So What" and performing the entire album in sequence, Cobb's sextettrumpeter Wallace Roney, alto saxophonist Javon Jackson, tenor saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist Larry Willis, bassist John Webberwasted no time in setting the pace for a set that simmered and occasionally boiled over. Roney stood out, in particular, for the very thing he's been fighting for most of his career. Miles Davis' protegé, the trumpeter has too often been compared with the late icon and considered a clone, something that couldn't be farther from the truth, as his festival performance and a string of terrific albums on HighNote in recent yearsPrototype (2004), Mystikal (2005) and the aptly named Jazz (2007)clearly attest. Davis was an innovator but not necessarily the greatest technician; a player remembered for mining the midrange of his instrument. Roney's reach is broader, with a warmer and more liquid tone, but a more virtuosic approach, even as he continued to apply lessons learned from the predecessor about the meaning of space.
Willis was also a standout, working some of the same territory as Davis alum, Wynton Kelly, but with his own soft touch maintaining an element of cool that contrasted with some of the heat coming off the rest of the stage. Javon Jackson's output as a leader has been met with mixed reviews, but his talent as a player is unquestionable, soloing at length on the equally classic "All Blues" and, if anything, channeling Joe Henderson rather than John Coltrane, who appeared on the album. While Cobb's website advertizes Buster Williams as the bassist, Webber did a terrific job subbing, providing an unshakable yet elastic bottom end.
l:r: Larry Willis, Javon Jackson, Wallace Roney, Vincent Herring, John Webber, Jimmy Cobb
He may not have taken many solos, but it was a terrific opportunity to hear Cobb stretch out and go for it more fervently, as opposed to the more refined approach he demonstrated with Gambarini the previous night. Switching between brushes and sticks, he created the same sense of understated tension-and- release that so defined his work on the original album, but here he played with far more fire. Like the slightly older Roy Haynes (Haynes was born in 1925, Cobb in 1929), Cobb's energy and attention would be impressive for a man half his age, but is all the more so for a drummer who recently joined the octogenarian club.
With so many Miles tributes, the fact is that Cobb, as the last remaining member of the Kind of Blue sessions, has the greatest credibility in putting together a group to pay homage to the biggest seller in jazz history. It was the first smoking set of the festival, and will be a tough one to beat.