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Toshiko Akiyoshi: The Music Keeps Her Young

Jack Bowers By
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Pianist Billy Taylor, now in his eighty-ninth year, once recorded an album titled Music Keeps Us Young. I'm a firm believer in that and could point to several notable examples, one of whom is composer / pianist / bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi who was in Albuquerque and Santa Fe last month with husband Lew Tabackin to headline the fifth annual New Mexico Jazz Festival. I first saw Toshiko at an open rehearsal with the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra at The Outpost in Albuquerque on Saturday, July 24, and the impression was one of a woman whose appearance, energy and demeanor belied her age, which is eighty as of December 2009. No one had to help Toshiko onto the stage; she managed quite nicely on her own, and once there was on top of everything, imparting advice in a soft yet firm voice and making sure the AJO understood and carried out her guidelines. When I left the rehearsal after an hour or so she was still going strong, fine-tuning the program for a Sunday evening concert at the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe.

Betty and I drove to Santa Fe on Sunday afternoon, had supper with our friends Paul and Inee Slaughter, then headed to the Lensic for the concert. Akiyoshi's quartet, with Tabackin alternating between tenor sax and flute, bassist Boris Koslov and drummer Mark Taylor providing back-up, and Toshiko looking radiant in a full-length red dress, was onstage first, opening with a spirited rendition of John Lewis' "Afternoon in Paris." Tabackin played tenor on that one, then moved to flute for a handsome ballad feature written for him by Toshiko, to whom he has been married for thirty-eight years. Tabackin deferred to the trio for the next number, Bud Powell's mercurial "Tempus Fugit" (punctuated by Toshiko's flying fingers), then returned (on tenor) for the lively "Studio F," on which Akiyoshi took a well-earned breather.

So far so good, and things were about to get even better as Toshiko called to the stage "the best lead trumpeter I ever had in my band," the incomparable Bobby Shew, who presided over the Akiyoshi / Tabackin Big Band's trumpet section from 1973-80 and now directs the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra when he isn't circling the globe as an in-demand soloist and educator. Shew held the audience in the palm of his hand for two engaging numbers, the first of which, "Memory," was a ballad written especially for him by Akiyoshi when he was still a member of her ensemble. Shew then switched from flugelhorn to trumpet, Tabackin returned on tenor, and the quintet wrapped up the first set with Tabackin's lively original, "Chasing the Carrot."

After intermission, the AJO came onstage to perform half a dozen of Akiyoshi's rich and colorful compositions, opening with "Long Yellow Road," a mid-tempo theme she said Tabackin calls "my 'A' Train." The orchestra was alert and unruffled, reinforcing crisp solos by alto Glenn Kostur and trumpeter Kent Erickson. The ballad "Autumn Sea" served as a vehicle for Tabackin's masterful flute work, after which Kostur delivered another impressive solo on "I Know Who Loves You." Tabackin's acrobatic tenor was front and center on the next two numbers, "Farewell to Mingus," written for the late bassist in whose group Toshiko first earned widespread notice, and the rapid-fire "Chasing After Love" (a.k.a. "Lover"), on which Tabackin's unaccompanied coda was exuberant and breathtaking. Akiyoshi closed the set and concert with a number she'd at first declined to write: "Hope," the last movement of a suite designed to conserve the memory of the horrific bombing of Hiroshima which helped lead to the end of World War II. "It was written," she said, "in the hope that a tragedy like that might never happen again." It's a beautiful piece of music, and was a fitting way in which to ring down the curtain on a remarkable performance.

Now to the flip side. Backstage, after the music had ended, Betty and I, and our friend Wes Pfarner, waited in a hallway to say hello and offer Toshiko our best wishes. There we saw a tiny woman, her eyes tired, face deeply lined and shoulders bent forward, moving gingerly and looking almost nothing like the stately presence we'd seen onstage. How much smaller she looked! At that moment I was reminded of Billy Taylor's adage. The music does indeed keep Toshiko young. As long as she is involved, whether performing herself or helping to bring out the best in others, the years seem to melt away and she is in a sense "young" again, if only for a brief time. Afterward, the infirmities of age intrude, and she must deal with them until the next concert, and the one after that. It's no wonder that so many musicians are loathe to retire. Music is their lifeblood, and it is through music that they are able to impede, if only for awhile, the inevitable encroachment of time. My wish and hope is that the same holds true for those of us who can do no more than listen and appreciate.

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