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Lew Tabackin


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Lew Tabackin needs no introduction to serious jazz fans. The tenor saxophonist and flutist worked with Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Joe Henderson, Duke Pearson, Donald Byrd, Elvin Jones and The Tonight Show Band; was a star soloist with the Danish Radio Orchestra in the late '60s; and joined alto saxophonist Phil Woods for a one-shot small group album. But Tabackin made his mark in the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra for several decades until it disbanded in 2003. Tabackin has also made around 20 albums of his own since the mid-'70s.

All About Jazz: What was your music education background?

Lew Tabackin: I didn't come from a musical family. I grew up in South Philadelphia and the school system loaned instruments and provided a teacher. I wanted a clarinet, but I got a flute. I played it in the orchestra through junior high and high school, won all-state and, as a result, earned a scholarship to go to the Philadelphia Conservatory. I had started playing tenor at 15, but couldn't major in saxophone there. My mind wasn't on flute, I wanted to play jazz saxophone. Finally I got a very good teacher who was first flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra; he showed me some interesting approaches in how to deal with the instrument.

After I got out of school, I listened mostly to classical flute players, because I was never attracted to "jazz" flute, other than Frank Wess and a few others. I started to form a tonal concept from classical players and tried to learn the flute as I learned saxophone, by listening to records and taking certain qualities of the people I liked.

After I got out of the Army in 1965, I moved to New York and started playing around town. [Bassist] Chuck Israels led a band that played complex music, some of it Bill Evans-ish or like Stephane Wolpe [with whom Johnny Mandel studied]. Chuck knew I played flute, so he wrote for me. I took French Impressionist music and utilized that concept in improvisation. When Toshiko came into the picture, she wrote a lot of narrative music that told a story. She wrote stuff that dealt with Japanese concepts, so I listened to shakuhachi music and developed a quasi-Zen approach.

The tenor sax has such a great tradition in jazz but it is difficult to come up with a unique sound. The flute isn't really a primary jazz instrument so I had the freedom to conceive a personal approach that was totally mine. It's not easy to balance the two instruments because they are great enemies. I play tenor pretty physically, then on flute I have to sound like a real flutist. It also helps to create variety in a program. Today's audiences don't get the jokes or have as much of a listening background. I try to balance the program so I don't leave listeners in the dust.

AAJ: How did you meet Toshiko and how did your working relationship develop?

LT: I met Toshiko when I was playing with Clark Terry in 1967; she was subbing for his regular pianist, Don Friedman. She was planning a concert to feature her compositions at Town Hall and she needed a tenor player. Joe Farrell was going to do it, but he cancelled to tour with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. She called a contractor to ask about me and offered me the gig, which I accepted and later had to cancel, as I ended up on the Jones-Lewis Band tour too. I played with her later in a quintet and we started do a rehearsal project of her music after I suggested getting together weekly. We made our first recording with a small group [At the Top of the Gate] in 1968.

We married in 1969. By the early '70s it was a difficult time for white jazz musicians in New York City, in the middle of the Black Revolution, which I supported. We couldn't get enough gigs. When I played the Apollo Theatre with Duke Pearson, I wasn't allowed to solo. I had an offer from Doc Severinsen to play in The Tonight Show band in LA and he said he could set me up with other musicians out there.

Shortly after we moved there, I realized it wasn't the right place for me. I played too hard, they liked bossa novas. It was like Irwin Corey's definition of a fugue: "The music continues, the people go out." I started working on my own stuff. I knew a lot of musicians and learned that the union rehearsal hall was available at a ridiculously low rate, so I suggested that Toshiko put together a band to play her music. I was the contractor and featured soloist.

We rehearsed weekly, even without gigs. We did a concert and made our first record, Kogun (RCA Victor, 1974), in a small studio in Japan. John Lewis was the music director for the Monterey Jazz Festival at the time; he heard the album and booked us. In those days, it provided important exposure, as many critics and European bookers attended. Most of the time we lost money on gigs. We didn't know how to deal with hotels. My work ended up subsidizing the band. We finally moved back to New York.

Toshiko utilized her heritage in her writing, a lot of it narrative music that told a story. Kogun had a melody that required a certain slide technique on flute, so I had to figure out how to do it. As years progressed, she wrote more of that stuff and it wasn't as hard for me. I had to try to understand and assimilate the Japanese aesthetic, so it became part of my flute playing.

AAJ: How have your musical lives intertwined since Toshiko disbanded the orchestra?

LT: We both have our own concepts, so we have to compromise when playing together. We did a duo tour of Japan in 2008 and recorded two CDs for a small Japanese label [T-Toc]; sometimes we play in a quartet. We're each working on our own music, so we try to balance it out. I practice in the basement, she has a piano upstairs, there's a floor of separation between us. We also have a house in Westchester that has a piano but no phone or TV.

AAJ: Do you have a preference for playing in a small group setting?

LT: I prefer playing with just bass and drums, though I wasn't able to do it too often in the past. I began working on the trio concept in 1967 and it's been my main focus all these years. There is a certain transparency in my trio that you can't get with the presence of a chordal instrument, while omitting piano also makes intimate communication possible. I spend a lot of time with my trio [bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Mark Taylor] in Japan. We try to get yearly tours by booking well in advance, since both of them have other commitments.

AAJ: Do you have a new CD planned or one ready for release?

LT: I put out a trio CD [Live in Paris (Self Produced, 2008)] by myself last year that was recorded for broadcast, just so this band was documented. At this point, I've lost interest in aggressively recording and promoting. Today, young people have all the energy to work their asses off. I'm from the old school, where it was the record company's job to promote. I prefer to spend time working on my music; I'd rather work to get my low B-flat to be better.

Selected Discography

Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band, Mosaic Select 33 (Mosaic, 2009)
Lew Tabackin Trio, Tanuki's Night Out (Tokuma, 2002)
Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Desert Lady/Fantasy (Sony, 1993)
Lew Tabackin Quartet, Desert Lady (Concord, 1989)
Lew Tabackin, Black and Tan Fantasy (Ascent-Discomate, 1979)
Lew Tabackin, Dual Nature (Inner City, 1976)

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