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A Fireside Chat With Lew Tabackin

AAJ Staff By

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It was a cynical approach when you try to think of 'art' music as something that is a candy bar or breakfast cereal. It doesn't make any sense. This is why jazz was better off with smaller labels. Large companies don?t know what to do with it.
I don't want to sound off another cliche but Lew Tabackin is criminally unheralded (but who isn't in this music?). Tabackin is criminally under-recorded (but who isn't in this music?). Tabackin is criminally not performing live as he should be (but who isn't in this music?). Which leaves only one conclusion: we are all some thieving mother-f-ers in this music and should all be put behind bars. There are days when I am banging my head up against the proverbial jazz wall or jazz ceiling as it were because artists like Tabackin aren't being shown the money. But I am only one voice in a land full of voices and the chance I am being heard is about as remote as Steve Martin getting an Academy Award, between slim to none.

Tabackin is most widely known for his collaborations with wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, but Tabackin is a terrific player and proof is in the pudding (e.g. Desert Lady with Hank Jones and Dave Holland, or his rhapsodic rendition of 'I Wished on the Moon' on What a Little Moonlight Can Do, or Ella worthy 'But Not for Me' off his In a Sentimental Mood release). Our, the collective our, inability to recognize and more importantly appreciate artist like Tabackin is the tragedy of the times we live in, which is often why I bow my head in shame, most days. But enough about me. Folks, may I present Lew Tabackin, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

LEW TABACKIN: I started out on the flute and when I was fifteen, I decided I wanted to play the tenor. Once I started playing the saxophone, I really started to get interested in music. Before that, it wasn't that important to me. From that point, I started to really try to make up for lost time because I felt that I started late. I picked up the tenor and within an hour, I had a sound and a concept that was quite respectable. It didn't take me very long. I started going to jam sessions and playing and one thing lead to another and I just went with it and never turned back. It's like the old Lester Young quotation. Lester Young was the drummer in his family band and he decided he wanted to switch to another instrument and they took him to a shop and he picked up the tenor and he said, 'When I put the horn in my mouth, I knew the bitch was for me.' It is kind of a similar thing. I had an empathy for the saxophone, for the tenor saxophone. It was fairly natural.

FJ: Influences?

LT: At the time, it was the very beginning, but Philadelphia, for some reason, there was a lot of interest in Al Cohn and I had some of his records and that was probably my first influence. There was a guy who lived next door to me in Philadelphia who had a record collection and I started to listen to some of his stuff, but Al Cohn was my first guy.

FJ: The historical significance of Philly jazz, due in part to John Coltrane, has had considerable weight.

LT: Oh, yeah, one of the few things that was good about Philadelphia was there was a very strong jazz music scene. After I started playing the saxophone for a few months, I started to go and try and sit in in a lot of jam sessions and they were fairly tolerant of novices. The better players, the more experienced players would be encouraging. There were the jazz coffee shops where we could play and experiment and then move on to second tier jazz clubs. It was OK. I was still going to school when all this was happening. It was a good place to get started. There were a lot of great, local musicians to listen to.

FJ: Who mentored your development?

LT: Oh, boy, Fred, I haven't thought about that. I think it was more of a collective thing. It was more of peers discussing the latest discoveries and then you can kind of relay your own experiences. It was more like a peer group situation. When I was twenty, I decided I wanted to know more about the history of my instrument and at that time, I was kind of a Coltrane clone and I figured it was counterproductive to emulate someone. It was a dead end, so there was a trombone player who had a large record collection and he let me listen to many great players and it opened my ears up. It opened my whole concept and so I began to find my identity through understanding the tradition.

FJ: Tradition can also become a burden.

LT: I don't think that tradition is ever a burden. I think tradition is an asset because nothing comes out of nowhere. Anything of value doesn't just come out of nowhere. Charlie Parker didn't come out of nowhere. Even Ornette Coleman, who was a revolutionary in a sense, didn't come out of nowhere. We all carry the tradition. It is just how you absorb the tradition and make it yours. You find your voice through absorbing the tradition and the more you know, the more you have absorbed, the more you can create. When I was very young, I used to say that I was going to try something really different and see if I could be the next great innovator and it didn't take long to realize that that was not the way to go. Innovation is something that comes out of an evolution. It is more of an evolving thing than a radical thing. That is how I feel about it. The players that hit me are usually the players that actually understand the tradition. There are a lot of 'avant-garde' musicians that dabble in the tradition and they usually screw it up and they haven't really worked hard enough at understanding where everything comes from.

FJ: When did you begin your collaborations with Toshiko Akiyoshi?

LT: We met in '67. I was playing in Clark Terry's band. It was kind of an all-star band that I got into. I was one of the few un-all-stars. I was in the band and Toshiko was subbing for the regular pianist, Don Friedman, and she was looking for a tenor player to play her concert. She had Joe Farrell and Joe couldn't do it and then she heard me and said that I was the guy she wanted for her Town Hall concert. So that is how we met. The strange part about it is that I didn't do her concert. I went to California with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn't make her concert, but I guess she didn't hold it against me too badly. Once in a while, she brings it up even to this day. Toshiko has an elephant's memory when it comes to stuff like that. Anyway, it is kind of a joke. It has been an ongoing joke for all these years. Later on, she had some small group gigs and she called me to do and we had some projects that we did and that is how we started out. The first gigs that I did with her, there were no arrangements involved. We just played. But then, she wrote a lot of music for her trios in the old days and then she started to write some quartet music. In fact, we used to get together fairly regularly with rhythm sections and she would bring in some arrangements that we would play. Eventually, we did a recording with the quintet with Kenny Dorham, where she wrote most of the music.

In a way, some of the stuff in the big band is an extension of that. So she is very compositional. I think she always was. When she was a trio player, she was very compositional. She listened to a lot of Bud Powell and he was too. His compositions are quite remarkable. The big band thing was basically, almost an accident. When she did the Town Hall concert in '67 that I didn't make, she wrote three or four arrangements for big band and the concert consisted of solo, duo, trio, big band, something like that. So when we moved to Los Angeles in '72, people were calling me to play in their rehearsal bands and most of them were pretty boring and I just didn't find them interesting. So I just offhandedly mentioned to Toshiko that I knew she had a few charts that she wrote for the concert, maybe I would get some guys together and we would just play for fun. We started rehearsing at the musicians union in Los Angeles, Local 47. I think in those days, it was fifty cents and hour or three hours. I don't remember, but it was nothing. We started doing it and we had all kinds of people come in and out of the band. Some guys couldn't relate to the music and other considered it a challenge. We kept on doing it. It was ten in the morning on Wednesdays. It was quite interesting. She started to write more stuff and before you knew it, we had music to play and we started to get the personnel that made sense and that was the beginning. But it was never meant to be a real working band. It was just something to do like a workshop. It snowballed. You are in Los Angeles right, Fred?

FJ: I am.

LT: We used to play at the Ice House in Pasadena and we used to play for the door. We would go out there once a week and play and it was really bad. We didn't get hardly any money. We divided it up and it would come to two, three dollars a piece, so I would always chip in a few more dollars. We used to do that and it was pretty interesting. We decided that we should put on a concert because everybody's been donating their time and we should do something. So we rented the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and we gave our first concert in '73. In fact, Shelly Manne did the gig with us because our regular drummer was playing with some singer, Olivia Newton-John or one of these people, somebody silly like that. So I asked Shelly and Shelly was rehearsing and he did the concert and we produced it ourselves and that was the first thing. A Japanese record producer who was mostly a classical music person, he recorded the band and we made our first album called Kogun. We recorded it to eight track in a rather small studio and the budget was really low, but the music was really interesting and it came out quite well. It was a big hit in Japan. It sold 30,000 copies almost immediately. It was the biggest serious jazz music hit, if you want to call it a hit. It sounds kind of stupid, but it was successful. That was very important. It was a fusion of Japanese sounds and American jazz. It was early world music in a sense. It was the first type of Asian/jazz fusion was recorded with our big band.
About Lew Tabackin
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