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Akiko Tsuruga Quintet at William Paterson University

David A. Orthmann By

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Akiko Tsuruga Quintet
Shea Center the the Performing Arts
William Paterson University Summer Jazz Room at Home
Wayne, NJ
July 23, 2020

New York City area jazz venues have begun to make their first steps toward recovery through the vehicle of live streaming. While a band and audience sharing the same physical space and feeding off of each other's energy is an essential part of the live performance experience, for the foreseeable future all parties have been forced to step out of their comfort zones and connect in a new way. William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, one of the nation's pioneering Jazz Studies programs and, since 1978, the host of The Jazz Room concert series, joins the small but significant number of venues willing to present live jazz in this unprecedented format.

Speaking as someone who has been reluctant to embrace live streaming, this reviewer was engrossed by the seventy-minute set of Akiko Tsuruga's Quintet, one of four summer concerts offered by WPU in less than a week. Finding a sweet spot between the exacting art of modern jazz and the familiarity of blues and R&B practices, the Hammond B-3 organist and her crack band did an extraordinary job of reducing the distance between an empty auditorium and the screen of my laptop. Radiating a combination of energy, high spirits and expertise, their music transcended the medium.

Tsuruga and drummer Joe Farnsworth (one of two William Paterson alumni on stage) constituted the band's backbone and animating force. The resonance of Tsuruga's bass pedal lines combined with the crack of Farnsworth's snare accents and ping of his ride cymbal made the music jump in a joyous, unrelenting manner. They spurred trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon and guitarist Charlie Sigler (the other William Paterson alum), whose tight ensemble work and solos matched the exacting underpinnings.

Apart from Horace Silver's "Peace," a mid-set ballad feature for Magnarelli's flugelhorn, the material and arrangements were tailor made to the band's momentum. A series of 12 and 4 bar trades between Tsuruga and Sigler on Jimmy McGriff's "All About My Girl," changes in dynamics in the out head of the popular song "What A Difference A Day Makes," and the restatement of the theme of Tsuruga's "Dancing Cats" between soloists, were factors in keeping the music fresh and vital.

As a soloist, Tsuruga carved out her own space in the soul-jazz organ tradition. While some catchphrases, sustained chords and big climaxes are part of her approach to improvisation, she possesses an identity independent of these familiar elements. From the onset to the conclusion of solos on her tune "Mag's Groove," "What A Difference A Day Makes," and "Dancing Cats," Tsuruga's electrifying effect on the music partially disguised a reservoir of discipline and calculation. Amidst the visceral impact, you could detect the care that went into the construction of a succession of phrases. Throughout the entire set, Tsuruga swung mightily without extraneous effort, and often left open space for Sigler and Farnsworth to shine through.

While live performance as we know it faces an uncertain future, it's reassuring that, in the hands of players like Akiko Tsuruga, the power of jazz to inspire, enlighten and entertain remains intact.

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