Toshiko Akiyoshi: Fine Wine


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You can't use a piano at the beginning, you have to hear, because you're the first audience. My early compositions were vehicles for the player, then it became programmatic music that tells a story
Toshiko Akiyoshi's reputation as a brilliant composer/arranger is widely heralded. She was the first woman to lead a big band for an extended period of time, while she was also the first Japanese jazz artist to achieve international acclaim. A pianist of incredible talent, Akiyoshi's abilities were somewhat hidden within her orchestra, though she made a number of small group and solo recordings, many of them only issued in Japan. She is also very proud of her 2007 NEA Jazz Master Award.

Toshiko Akiyoshi was just 23 years old when Oscar Peterson heard her perform in a night club during a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan in 1953, which provoked him to insist that Norman Granz immediately record her. Over the next 55 years, Akiyoshi recorded dozens of albums and over one hundred of her compositions, often blending her love of bop with elements of traditional Japanese music.

Born in Manchuria in 1929, her family returned to Japan in the summer of 1946. During a recent phone interview, she recalled, "I was playing dance halls. We had Stephen Foster songs in our books, but I was exposed to American popular songs like 'Sweet Sue' for the first time. I was 16 and took the job because my family could no longer afford to have a piano for me. I played in Japanese dance halls, where Americans were not allowed during the occupation. I met a Japanese record collector who invited me into his home. He played Teddy Wilson's record of 'Sweet Lorraine' and I had never heard anyone play so beautifully."

By the time she left Japan to study at Berklee (its first Japanese student), Akiyoshi was a seasoned pianist, composing for radio. "They were still teaching the Schillinger system, it was a totally different approach to music theory. Herb Pomeroy taught orchestration." The day she arrived in Boston, she was able to hear the Bud Powell Trio at Storyville. After moving to New York City, Akiyoshi noted, "I ran into him a lot. I'd be playing at the Showboat, he'd be around the corner at the Band Box. He came down to watch me play when I played a couple of months at the Hickory House. I was directly influenced by Bud then."

After leaving Berklee, she married saxophonist Charlie Mariano and co-led a quartet with him during the early '60s, though both the partnership and marriage were short-lived. But Akiyoshi knew she had to find her own style. "That's why I started writing my own music for my trio. I had no interest in big band music until I produced my concert at Town Hall in 1967, hoping people would notice and I would get more jobs. I wrote five charts for a big band. But I had to rent a studio to rehearse, as the union didn't have a rehearsal room at that time."

Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin are hardly the first musical couple to perform together, but they have an admirable track record. "I met Lew in 1967 and, in 1972, when his job required him to move to Los Angeles, which had very little jazz activity, he was bored. He said, 'I know you have music and I'll get some musicians together to play your charts.' That's how my band started in 1973. At the time the union had a rehearsal hall available for five dollars for three hours! If Lew had not said that, I probably wouldn't have had the band. Lew recruited all of the musicians and everyone in the saxophone section doubled. If it was there, I utilized it. All of them played flute, so I thought I would write for five flutes. I always wanted to use Japanese drums, I loved their sound. Lew listened to a lot of classical flute. There was one contemporary piece that was a capella, where you have to bend the note. I told Lew, "I know you can do that, because you have a French model flute. Lew's a great player. Instead of saying, 'This can't be done,' he says, 'Find a way to do it.' Lew is underrated, he made my band sound special. Count Basie had Lester Young, Duke Ellington had Ben Webster, I had Lew Tabackin." Once Akiyoshi had rehearsed the band, she was ready to showcase it. "I contacted a Japanese record producer [whose specialty was actually classical music] and we made our first record, Kogun. Then people wanted to hear the band."

The death of Duke Ellington in 1974 caused her to re-examine her roots. Realizing that Ellington's music was based upon his race, she was inspired to look into her heritage through her music. "I realized jazz had no Japanese heritage in it at the time, so I decided it was my job to infuse it with some. At that point I had been playing long enough and longer than some American players. When I arrived in the US, I could sit in with Miles or with Duke. It was very open, if you knew the tune, you could sit in." Yet she was still unsure if Japanese jazz fans would accept her new fusion of Japanese influences with jazz. "When I wrote Kogun, I was sure that Japanese jazz fans were going to put me down. They're kind of purists, in a sense. They don't even like a big band most of the time. Yet I was surprised more than anybody when it became my best-selling album." In 1999, Tim Jackson commissioned Akiyoshi to compose a piece in memory of Duke Ellington to premiere at the Monterey Jazz Festival. She explained, "I thought it was a great honor."

Toshiko Akiyoshi's Big Band with Lew Tabackin made quite a few albums over several decades before she disbanded it. She remarked, "We never had a lot of jobs, but the ones we had were high profile. In 2000, I was asked to play solo at Kennedy Center. I was thinking that I should get back to playing piano. All of my writing came from my experience as a player, yet I soloed very little in the band. I always played in Japan without the band and sometimes in Europe. Writing and woodshedding is a full-time job. I wasn't getting any record dates in this country, only in Japan. The band played every Monday night [at Birdland] for several years. I did a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall in October 2003. People came from Europe, South America, Salt Lake City, California. That was a very good concert. People lined up for our last concert in December—people never lined up!"

To play solo, Akiyoshi admitted that she faced new challenges. "My work is harder now than before. When I had the band I was always at the piano, even after hours. Now I have to struggle to practice. I like to have virtuosity like Bud Powell had, but also content like John Lewis. I would like to have both, but it's not easy." She took part in three 100 Gold Fingers tours of Japan, each of which featured ten pianists playing solo and in various combinations. While it was a fun experience, she recalled, "The first one featured Hank Jones, Duke Jordan and John Lewis. But every day your chops would go down, because you only played for 15 minutes. John always beat me to the hall, so I couldn't warm up!"

The process of composing is difficult for Akiyoshi. "You can't use a piano at the beginning, you have to hear, because you're the first audience. My early compositions were vehicles for the player, then it became programmatic music that tells a story. I have to work hard to listen as I think, it takes me a long time. I have a little insecurity. I go to the piano to see if I'm hearing it right. Melody is most important. Pianists develop a sense of harmony. I have no sense of writing melody, so I have to work very hard, so I'll come up with something. It's a long process." Yet Akiyoshi can agonize over small details. "If one note changes, it changes the whole piece. I can take a half-hour to decide on one note. When I was questioned about one note in a new chart, I explained that to the band and told them, 'Please cherish the note.'"

Akiyoshi has been playing more solo piano, along with small group dates, which required changes in her approach. "I always have a dilemma. When I wrote [for big band], I didn't have a problem, because I could always change it, I didn't have to deal with time. But when I play, I always think, 'Why did I do that?'"

In addition to her gig this month, Akiyoshi will play with Tabackin at Birdland in July and in a quartet at Monterey in September. She commented, "Sometimes when one of us is hired, they ask for both of us. ...Lew has his own identity and a piano-less trio with a repertoire that is very different from mine. We both have to compromise." Both Akiyoshi and Lew have developed reputations as wine connoisseurs, as well. "I collect to drink! When I started getting royalties, I spent them on wine." She joked, "Even though I may be poor, I like to drink good wine. At one point, I had around 4,000 bottles, strictly French, though I've stopped collecting. Lew started collecting a couple of years later and knows a lot about Italian wines. He's still collecting, I'm drinking."

Recommended Listening:

Toshiko Akiyoshi, Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi (Norgran-Verve, 1953)

Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, Mosaic Select 33 (RCA-Mosaic, 1974-77)

Toshiko Akiyoshi, Farewell (Ascent-BMG, 1980)

Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Concert (Columbia, 1991)

Toshiko Akiyoshi, At Maybeck, Vol. 36 (Concord, 1994)

Toshiko Akiyoshi/SWR Big Band, Let Freedom Swing (Hanssler Classic, 2007)

Photo Credit

Top: Madli-Liis

Bottom: Bruce Moore

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