Toshiko Akiyoshi: United Notions


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Globalization once was a guiding principal for the United States. With the proliferation of Communism in the 1950s, America moved quickly to make friends with as many countries around the world as it could. The United Nations was a big deal, Sixth Ave. in New York was known as Avenue of the Americas and the U.S. favored nations in Asia and Africa winning their independence after years of colonial rule.

On the cutting edge of American international diplomacy was jazz. The State Department paid for trips by musicians to every continent to build cultural bridges. American jazz musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Herbie Mann, Louis Armstrong and Randy Weston were featured on albums visiting other countries. At the same time, foreign jazz musicians were relocating to the U.S. to study and play. One of those was pianists was Toshiko Akiyoshi.

In 1958, two years after moving from Japan to Boston to study on a scholarship at the Berklee School of Music, Toshiko recorded United Notions, a little-known sextet album that featured a band with a range of nationalities. The band featured Doc Severinsen (tp) Rolf Kuhn (cl,as/German) Bobby Jaspar (ts,bar,fl/Belgian) Toshiko Akiyoshi (p/Japanese) Rene Thomas (g/Canadian) John Drew (b/English) and Bert Dahlander (d/Swedish). Nat Adderley replaced Severinsen on Jane, Strike Up the Band and United Notions.

Everyone in Toshiko's sextet hailed from another country except for the trumpet chair, which represented the U.S. Toshiko was influenced by Bud Powell and her smart piano approach is featured on each of the tracks. The album appeared originally on the MetroJazz label and the arrangements are terrific. Unfortunately, the album doesn't mention who wrote them. Two of the album's songs—Jane and Civilized Folk—were composed and arranged by Bob Freedman. I spoke to Bob last night and he believes Toshiko wrote the other charts.

The arrangements are universally lovely and the band is sophisticated and magnificent. Tracks include Broadway, Bobby Jaspar's Sukiyaki, Oscar Pettiford's Swingin' Til the Girls Come Home, Toshiko's United Notions, Bob Freedman's Civilized Folk, Gershwin's Strike Up the Band and Bob's Jane.

What make this album particularly special is the mastery and patience of the foreign players. Toshiko has a delicate touch and is routinely surprising while Jaspar, Thomas (above) and Kuhn swing together perfectly. The trumpets of Adderley and Severinsen punctuate without overwhelming. A shame that today we can't learn from the past and let exceptional jazz musicians handle our diplomacy. In 1958, this album's coalition of players made it look easy.

JazzWax tracks: Toshiko Akiyoshi's United Notions is available as a bonus on The Rene Thomas Quintet: Guitar Groove (Fresh Sound) from 1960 here and here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Bobby Jaspar's Sukiyaki on United Notions...


And here's Bob Freedman's Jane...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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