Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band: Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band: Mosaic Select

Samuel Chell BY

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Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band: Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band: Mosaic Select
Jazz was never more schizophrenic than in the 1970s. On the one hand, musicians equally savvy about mixing genres and running mixing boards were selling out arenas and producing lucrative, widely played albums, with bass-heavy danceable beats or soothing instrumental sounds tailor-made for air play on FM radio. At the other extreme, many of the jazz masters who came up with, or slightly before and after, saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk could be heard in small, intimate rooms for the slightly inflated price of a Budweiser. And if the clubs were inaccessible, five bucks or a student I.D. could get you into a four-hour prom featuring the Duke Ellington or Count Basie bands—or the evening concert culminating a high school or college workshop by one of the remaining road bands: those led by Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich or Maynard Ferguson.

But besides the road warriors who remained keepers of the flame, there were the two Coastal "rehearsal" bands rumored by some to be better than the famed traveling "name" bands. The East Coast had the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis aggregation, and before the decade was over, it was the West Coast's Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band that was provoking the most serious buzz.

The word about the Akiyoshi-Tabackin band spread largely because of five exceptional studio sessions the group recorded 1974-1977 for RCA, the results of which can be heard on this priceless three-disc box set released as a limited edition in the Mosaic 33 Select series. The music is as exhilarating to hear as it is challenging to play. Close your eyes and imagine what the immortal pianist Bud Powell would sound like were his best compositions and solos orchestrated by Duke Ellington, fortified by the virile-sounding tenor saxophone of Sonny Rollins as primary soloist, embellished with some exotic 5/4 and 13/8 meters, flavored with some traditional Japanese melodies, and finally entrusted to a group of musicians committed to a man to keep swing king at all costs—and you may have some sense, albeit an imperfect one, of the distinctive sound of the Akiyoshi-Tabackin big band of the 1970s. Thanks to these recordings, listeners have an opportunity to position themselves next to its beating heart.

For some young spectators who caught her triumphant 2009 summer performance in Ottawa (see the exclusive review on All About Jazz), Toshiko Akiyoshi's may have been a less familiar name than Hiromi Uehara's. After moving to New York in the 1980s and starting a personal recording label, Akiyoshi herself remained prolific in her composing, performing and recording, but appearances by the big band were increasingly sporadic, with most of its few recordings limited to distribution in Japan.

There's neither anything Japanese nor elegiac about "Elegy," the Akiyoshi work leading off the Mosaic set. Beginning with her lunging, driving piano (we hear her voice urging her fingers to ever greater melodic heights), the piece soon yields to the elegant, personal sound of trombonist and former Ellingtonian, Britt Woodman, then to the searing, soaring alto of Dick Spencer, next to the inventive, utterly "natural"-sounding acoustic bass of Gene Cherico (accompanied unobtrusively by the entire band!), and finally to the powerful and virtuoso, yet always adventurous and motivic tenor saxophone of co-leader Lew Tabackin.

But it's the ensemble sound—the arrangement and its implementation—that takes the honors on this opening track and throughout the entire collection. The textures are complex and imaginative, whether harmonized rapid-tempo lines played by full ensemble or polyphonic passages created by subdivisions within the larger ensemble. Finally, Akiyoshi knows how to use the trumpet talent at her disposal (Don Rader, Mike Price, Bobby Shew) to bring the whole mix to a dramatic, exciting climax.

The piece is a microcosm of what's to come in this collection of 26 extended works. Contributing to the singular timelessness of this music (normally "70s music" and "period piece" are synonymous) is the beauty of the recorded sound: open, transparent, untampered with beyond the challenge of mixing music with melodic motives played simultaneously by the different sections created by Akiyoshi's unusual orchestrations. Whereas many of the recordings of this period give away their age by the amount of reverb or the decay time and amplification of the bass, the sound on this collection could have been recorded earlier today.

And what a sound it is! For example, because of the versatile talents of Tabackin and the woodwind section, Akiyoshi is able to write five-part flute sections, with each musician assigned a different note. On "American Ballad" she supplies as a cushion beneath Britt Woodman's jaw-droppingly stratospheric yet sublime sailing a bed of five-part harmony comprising two flutes, two clarinets and bass clarinet.

While Akiyoshi's affinity with Bud Powell's music has been repeated often enough, her Ellington side is equally conspicuous on these recordings. Like the Maestro, the orchestra is her true instrument (often the only support for a soloist comes from drums and bass or bass alone), and like Ellington, she writes less for the sections or the instruments than for the "tonal personalities" comprising the orchestra. And just as Ellington is as likely to mix a violin, bass clarinet and alto saxophone, Akiyoshi will pass up the traditional saxophone section in favor of combining Tabackin's flute with clarinet, bass clarinet and trombone, as on "Opus, Number Zero." Finally, just as Ellington's arrangements practically required musicians who had worked together over years if not decades, Akiyoshi's arrangements, unlike those of the more formulaic, riff-driven bands, require considerable rehearsal—for example, to master the start-and-stop sections of the aforementioned "Opus," which moves among various tempos and dynamics with seamless and purposeful, practically invisible, continuity.

But just as Akiyoshi differentiates herself from Ellington in her drawing upon Parker, Powell and bebop traditions, she also has the advantage, for example in "Kogan," of being able to employ traditional Japanese instruments and the spoken and sung sections of Noh Drama. "Kogun" begins with a pinched voice not unlike that of the spiritual conduit's, or medium's, in Kurosawa's classic film, Rashomon. Its intonation is picked up by half of the orchestra, emulating it through staggered articulations and quarter- tones by the instruments, while the other half of the orchestra plays in a conventional swinging bebop style.

One of the dangers of being not only a composer-pianist whose instrument is the orchestra but also the wife of a virtuoso, if not virtually overpowering, player of woodwinds (the comparison with Rollins is not made casually) is that the orchestra risks being perceived as little more than accompaniment, or a showcase, for the featured soloist. (Akiyoshi is even quoted to the effect that Tabackin is "one-half of the band.") The beginning of the second disc of this set is most likely to invite such a narrow (and misleading) perception.

The first number, a Tabackin original arranged and orchestrated by Akiyoshi, features the composer in a tour de force dedicated to four tenor giants: Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins. Tabackin stays on to open the next tune, "Road Time," with some rough and tumble, road- house-worthy choruses on tenor. And on "Tales of a Courtesan," an extended programmatic composition evoking an entire era in Japanese history, Tabackin exchanges his tenor saxophone for a flute, literally becoming the conflicted heroine of the title while evoking her psychological and emotional state through every expressive device of which the diminutive instrument is capable (it's difficult to comprehend that 25 years prior to this recording the instrument had not even acquired novelty status on jazz recordings).

From this point on it begins to become clear that, however vital Tabackin's role was in the band (think of Akiyoshi as the Shelleyan skylark; Tabackin as the stable anchor of the enterprise), he's hardly half of the show. Nor does a formula such as 50% Akiyoshi plus 50% Tabackin = one extraordinary ensemble do justice by the experience of hearing this remarkable assemblage. As the listener is reminded on the next tune, "Strive for Jive" (an "I Got Rhythm" set of chord changes reminiscent of Ellington's "Cottontail"), this band had firepower to spare—both in terms of superior solo artistry by all hands and dazzling sectional work. On the aforementioned number, it's Ellington's former trombonist Woodman who once again asserts his dominance, practically assuming the role his former employer customarily assigned to lead trumpeter Cat Anderson.

After exchanges (actually, flawless hand-offs) between trumpeter Bobby Shew and the harmonized parts—"sections" is misleading, since Akiyoshi's continual redefining of the term is as likely to exclude the traditional saxophone section in favor of a trombone, baritone sax, trumpet, clarinet and flute—Woodman attaches an unforgettable exclamation mark to the piece with a cleanly played, honest and true (no microphonics) E flat that's an extraordinary two octaves above the one above middle C.

At the other extreme, the band is at its lowest and most accessible on "I Ain't Gonna Ask No More," on which Dick Teele's contrabass trombone serves up some of the most inarguably low-down funk on record. Groove talk aside, musical surprises were a way of life with this band. "Transciences" features a muscular and full-throated, warm and inviting baritone saxophone solo from an unexpected source: the late Bill Perkins (once typed as a West Coast "cool schooling" tenor saxophonist). And on "Sumie," Akiyoshi draws upon her native culture while creating—through an enchanting melody carried by piccolo, four flutes and a bass clarinet—a dramatic spell of breath-taking intensity.

Thus far, we haven't even gotten to the third disc, which contains what some might justifiably view as the show-stopper of the entire collection—"Minamata," an ambitious, multi-colored, "cinematic" suite featuring, in addition to the poignant flugelhorn of Bobby Shew, the beguiling vocals of Akiyoshi's 13-year-old daughter, Michiru Mariano. The description "tone poem" seems an ill-fit for a piece that, even in its first movement, progresses from out-of-tempo, nuanced woodwind hues to slashing, punching fortissimo contributions from the entire brass section. Moreover, the work moves from percussionless, three-dimensional pastoral calm to the beautifully captured sound and fury of Peter Donald's drum kit driving the entire ensemble, eliciting fireworks from the dueling trumpets of Shew and Steven Huffsteter before returning to a meditative yet disturbing calm deepened by the addition of the vocal incantations of an authentic Noh performer.

Although the drama of the preceding work necessarily consigns all that follows to the realm of the anticlimactic, neither this collection nor the band is about to let up. The disc contains five additional works, including "March of the Tadpoles," a brisk and busy bebop work-out on "All the Things You Are" changes positioned somewhere between bebop piano gurus Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano. The solos by all hands, including the two leaders, are unfailingly spirited, but again it's the ensemble, whether negotiating Akiyoshi's boppish hazard courses with Supersax precision or painting living colors, that continues to rivet the listener's attention, all the way through the final flamenco-flavored piece, "Notorious Tourist from the East."

A curious title, one that invites speculation about why this remarkable music barely outlived the 1970s. Was the band poorly promoted? Was the music too inaccessible? Did the dominating and frequent solo work of Tabackin detract excessively from the creative genius of Akiyoshi? Certainly this was not the sort of fusion fare served up by producers Creed Taylor at CTI or Teo Macero at Columbia for the larger public. The band's audience consisted largely of musicians and followers of the big band scene which, after two dormant decades, had come back to life, thanks to the academization of jazz studies and jazz performance in the schools. The Akiyoshi- Tabackin band, moreover, was recorded on a major label by engineers who put good taste and common sense ahead of the more obvious, tricked-up commercial practices of the day.

As for the impression made by the band, after hearing it live, the lingering image was one of the whole rather than that of individual soloists—perhaps more true of Akiyoshi's band, or her "instrument," than of any other bands of the day. (And from the letters received from three visiting French teenagers who singled out as the highlight of their stay in America the experience of hearing Akiyoshi's band at Chicago's Jazz Showcase, it would be difficult, to say the least, to accuse the band of performing music that was insufficiently accessible.) Perhaps it's time to stop beating the dead horse "Where did the big bands go?" and to replace it with a different one. Where did music education go?

However tenuous its place in the sun, the Akiyoshi-Tabackin big band occupied a resplendent spot, as these recordings are sure to attest. Moreover, it lasted long enough to make possible the following statement, as quoted in the liner notes by Leonard Feather: "Toshiko Akiyoshi is the first woman in jazz history ever to compose and arrange an entire library of music and organize her own orchestra to interpret it." An impressive feat, and one, moreover, yielding a music transcending place and time let alone ethnicity and gender.

Track Listing

Tracks: CD1: Elegy; Memory; Kogun; American Ballad; Henpecked Old Man; Long Yellow Road; The First Night; Opus Number Zero; Quadrille, Anyone?; Children In The Temple Ground. CD2: Since Perry / Yet Another Tear; Road Time Shuffle; Tales Of A Courtesan; Strive For Jive; I Ain't Gonna Ask No More; Interlude; Village; Studio J; Transcience; Sumie. CD3: Minamata: Peaceful Village / Prosperity & Consequence / Epilogue; March Of The Tadpoles; Mobile; Deracinated Flower; Yellow Is Mellow; Notorious Tourist From East.


John Madrid, Don Rader, Mike Price, Stu Blumberg, Steven Huffseter, Richard Cooper: trumpets; Bobby Shew: trumpet, flugelhorn; Charles Loper, Jim Sawyer, Britt Woodman, Bruce Paulson, Bill Reichenbach: trombones; Phil Teele: bass and contrabass trombones; Dick Spencer, Gary Foster: alto saxophones, flutes, clarinets; Lew Tabackin: tenor sax, flute; Tom Peterson: tenor sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Bill Perkins: baritone sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet; Toshiko Akiyoshi: piano; Gene Cherico and Don Baldwin: bass; Peter Donald: drums; Scott Elsworth: voice; Tokuko Kaga: vocal (CD1#10); Lynn Nicholson: trumpet, replacing Stu Blumberg (CD1#9, CD2#2); Joe Roccisano: alto sax, replacing Gary Foster (CD1#8); Chuck Flores: drums, replacing Peter Donald (CD1#8, CD2#2); King Errison: congas (CD2#7); Hiromitsu Katada: kakko (CD2#10); Jerry Hey: trumpet, replacing Richard Cooper (CD3#1); Michiru Mariano: vocal (CD3#1); Hisao Kanze: uta; Tadao Kamei: ohtsuzumi; Hayao Uzawa: kotsuzumi.

Album information

Title: Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band: Mosaic Select | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Mosaic Records

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