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Toshiko Akiyoshi: The Music Keeps Her Young

Jack Bowers By

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Pianist Billy Taylor, now in his eighty-ninth year, once recorded an album titled Music Keeps Us Young. I'm a firm believer in that and could point to several notable examples, one of whom is composer / pianist / bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi who was in Albuquerque and Santa Fe last month with husband Lew Tabackin to headline the fifth annual New Mexico Jazz Festival. I first saw Toshiko at an open rehearsal with the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra at The Outpost in Albuquerque on Saturday, July 24, and the impression was one of a woman whose appearance, energy and demeanor belied her age, which is eighty as of December 2009. No one had to help Toshiko onto the stage; she managed quite nicely on her own, and once there was on top of everything, imparting advice in a soft yet firm voice and making sure the AJO understood and carried out her guidelines. When I left the rehearsal after an hour or so she was still going strong, fine-tuning the program for a Sunday evening concert at the Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe.

Betty and I drove to Santa Fe on Sunday afternoon, had supper with our friends Paul and Inee Slaughter, then headed to the Lensic for the concert. Akiyoshi's quartet, with Tabackin alternating between tenor sax and flute, bassist Boris Koslov and drummer Mark Taylor providing back-up, and Toshiko looking radiant in a full-length red dress, was onstage first, opening with a spirited rendition of John Lewis' "Afternoon in Paris." Tabackin played tenor on that one, then moved to flute for a handsome ballad feature written for him by Toshiko, to whom he has been married for thirty-eight years. Tabackin deferred to the trio for the next number, Bud Powell's mercurial "Tempus Fugit" (punctuated by Toshiko's flying fingers), then returned (on tenor) for the lively "Studio F," on which Akiyoshi took a well-earned breather.

So far so good, and things were about to get even better as Toshiko called to the stage "the best lead trumpeter I ever had in my band," the incomparable Bobby Shew, who presided over the Akiyoshi / Tabackin Big Band's trumpet section from 1973-80 and now directs the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra when he isn't circling the globe as an in-demand soloist and educator. Shew held the audience in the palm of his hand for two engaging numbers, the first of which, "Memory," was a ballad written especially for him by Akiyoshi when he was still a member of her ensemble. Shew then switched from flugelhorn to trumpet, Tabackin returned on tenor, and the quintet wrapped up the first set with Tabackin's lively original, "Chasing the Carrot."

After intermission, the AJO came onstage to perform half a dozen of Akiyoshi's rich and colorful compositions, opening with "Long Yellow Road," a mid-tempo theme she said Tabackin calls "my 'A' Train." The orchestra was alert and unruffled, reinforcing crisp solos by alto Glenn Kostur and trumpeter Kent Erickson. The ballad "Autumn Sea" served as a vehicle for Tabackin's masterful flute work, after which Kostur delivered another impressive solo on "I Know Who Loves You." Tabackin's acrobatic tenor was front and center on the next two numbers, "Farewell to Mingus," written for the late bassist in whose group Toshiko first earned widespread notice, and the rapid-fire "Chasing After Love" (a.k.a. "Lover"), on which Tabackin's unaccompanied coda was exuberant and breathtaking. Akiyoshi closed the set and concert with a number she'd at first declined to write: "Hope," the last movement of a suite designed to conserve the memory of the horrific bombing of Hiroshima which helped lead to the end of World War II. "It was written," she said, "in the hope that a tragedy like that might never happen again." It's a beautiful piece of music, and was a fitting way in which to ring down the curtain on a remarkable performance.

Now to the flip side. Backstage, after the music had ended, Betty and I, and our friend Wes Pfarner, waited in a hallway to say hello and offer Toshiko our best wishes. There we saw a tiny woman, her eyes tired, face deeply lined and shoulders bent forward, moving gingerly and looking almost nothing like the stately presence we'd seen onstage. How much smaller she looked! At that moment I was reminded of Billy Taylor's adage. The music does indeed keep Toshiko young. As long as she is involved, whether performing herself or helping to bring out the best in others, the years seem to melt away and she is in a sense "young" again, if only for a brief time. Afterward, the infirmities of age intrude, and she must deal with them until the next concert, and the one after that. It's no wonder that so many musicians are loathe to retire. Music is their lifeblood, and it is through music that they are able to impede, if only for awhile, the inevitable encroachment of time. My wish and hope is that the same holds true for those of us who can do no more than listen and appreciate.

A Further Word About the Lensic . . .

As the theatre was darkened during the Sunday evening performance, I was using, as I have on a number of other occasions, a small light attached to my key chain to enable me to scribble a few notes between each number. I was doing so during the Akiyoshi quartet's opening set when someone to my left hurled her program at me. It bounced off Betty, whizzed past my torso and landed at Wes Pfarner's feet. Needless to say, we were surprised, as it marked the first time anyone had ever objected to my using the light to take notes. While I'll admit that it could be troubling to some, I must affirm that I never use the light while the music is playing, only when those onstage are talking or otherwise preparing for the next selection. Reckoning that the offender had no more programs left to fling my way, I continued the note-taking until intermission, after which I moved from my choice dead-center seat in the mezzanine to a back-row seat where I could use the light without fear of encountering airborne missiles. Before doing so, however, I had to explain to a number of people who I was and why I was taking notes. If you've read this far you've already absorbed the results of my endeavor. As for the future, I can't say I won't visit the Lensic again, but you can bet I won't be going there any time I have to take notes.

Erwin Lehn: A Little-Known Giant Passes

Erwin Lehn, one of my musical heroes, died March 20 in Grunstadt, Germany, three months short of his ninety-first birthday. Why is he one of my heroes? Well, after World War II had ended, and with it the Nazis' ban on "swing music" (including jazz), Lehn was among the first to step up to the plate and form his own big band, originally called the Sudfunk-Tanzorchester (Southern Radio Dance Orchestra), which he led for forty years until his retirement in 1991. The orchestra continues today as one of Germany's finest under its new name, the SWR Big Band. Through the years a handful of American jazz artists spent time in the orchestra including trumpeters Don Rader and Lee Katzman and trombonists Bobby Burgess and Joe Gallardo, while Lehn's band and the SWR have welcomed such guest artists as trumpeters Maynard Ferguson, Chet Baker, Don Ellis, Arturo Sandoval and Bobby Shew; trombonists Rob McConnell, Frank Rosolino and Kai Winding; saxophonists Phil Woods, Sal Nistico, Herb Geller, Bill Holman, Frank Foster, Buddy Tate and Bob Mintzer; clarinetists Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, guitarist Barney Kessel and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans. Although Lehn's ensemble began life as a dance orchestra, he soon turned toward contemporary jazz and made his name in that realm. Lehn's band was first-class in every respect, thanks to superior personnel including Bernd Rabe, one of the finest lead alto players I've ever heard. I was introduced to the band by another departed friend, Bill Swanson, and I'll always be grateful to him for that.

Also Noted in Passing . . .

Dick Buckley, whose deep baritone voice was a welcome sound to jazz fans in the Chicago area for more than half a century as host of popular radio programs on WAAF, WAIT and for thirty-one years on WBEZ, died July 22 at age eighty-five. "To listen to Mr. Buckley," wrote arts critic Howard Reich, "was to receive an education in the inner workings of jazz, no matter how much you thought you knew about the subject." As one who listened often while working in the Chicago area from 1977-97, I'd second that. As a deejay in that part of the country, Buckley was second to none. He "retired" in 2008 when WBEZ slashed its jazz programming in favor of an all-talk format. That was a great loss to jazz in Chicago, as is his passing.

Wendell Logan, a composer of jazz and concert music who more than two decades ago founded the Jazz Studies department at the Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music, a part of Oberlin College, died June 15 in Cleveland. He was sixty-nine years old. Logan, who played saxophone and trumpet, joined the Oberlin faculty in 1973, but it was not until 1989 that he was able to make Jazz Studies a full-fledged major in which students can earn a bachelor of music degree. Before coming to Oberlin, Logan taught at Florida A&M, Ball State and Western Illinois universities. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1991), and his music has been recorded by Orion and other labels.

After this column had been written, news was received that the talented thirty-eight-year-old British drummer Chris Dagley had died in a motorcycle accident while returning home to Ruislip on July 28 from a gig in London with Ronnie Scott's house band. Chris was the drummer on the first album I ever reviewed, by Great Britain's superb National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and like other NYJO alumni had gone on to become one of the country's leading jazz musicians. "Bright, friendly and conscientious," wrote Jack Massarik at Jazzwisemagazine.com, "he was a crisp, hard-swinging drummer who took pride in his work and never gave it less than 100 percent." Dagley not only worked with such jazz greats as saxophonists Benny Golson and Don Weller and trumpeter Randy Brecker but with the BBC Big Band and pop stars including Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Lionel Ritchie and the Osmonds. "One of the best drummers we've ever had," said Bill Ashton, NYJO's director-emeritus. And that about sums it up. Our sincere condolences to Chris Dagley's widow and their three young children.

Bits 'n Pieces

The world-class Brussels Jazz Orchestra is coming to America and will be in residence October 26-31 at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City with guest soloist Kenny Werner. For information, contact Jazz@LincolnCenter.

Speaking of Jazz at Lincoln Center and its administrator, Wynton Marsalis, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has announced that the Marsalis family (all of them) are among the recipients of the 2011 Jazz Masters Awards, the first time in its history that the NEA has presented a group award. The Marsalis family includes patriarch Ellis, a pianist and educator, and his four sons: trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason. The other 2011 honorees are flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonist David Liebman, composer / arranger Johnny Mandel and record producer / author Orrin Keepnews. The award ceremony will be held next January at Lincoln Center.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !

New and Noteworthy

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2. Sheryl Bailey / 3 Rivers Jazz Orchestra A New Promise (MCG Jazz)

3. Phil Woods / DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, Solitude (Jazzed Media)

4. Des Moines Big Band, Landmark (No Label)

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8. Dave Lisik Orchestra, Coming Through Slaughter (Galloping Crow)

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12. University of Northern Iowa, Strange Wonderful (UNI Jazz)

13. Stone Bratt Big Band, Untitled (No Label)

14. North Texas State College, The Road to Stan (90th Floor Records)

15. Northeastern State University, Portrait (NSU Jazz Lab)

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