© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The band sounded so good that sometimes when I listen to the recordings I am touched by the performance. I think that’s the way it should be, you are supposed to record after you have spent a lot of time playing it, but in reality it's vice versa — you record first, then play, so I am very lucky that we had the opportunity to do it in the right order."
- Toshiko Akiyoshi commenting on Desert Lady/Fantasy
While listening to Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Big Band do their thing on Desert Lady/Fantasy [Sony SRCS7438], I thought I would write a feature about it for the blog.
And then I read these insert notes by Chris Albertson, contributing editor with Stereo Magazine, and I decided that I didn’t need to anymore as he had pretty much written what I wanted to say about the recording.
Chris’ notes offer insights into the musical attributes that make Toshiko’s big band so special. It also provides a commentary on what Toshiko had to go through to make this unique band a reality.
“Big bands entered the jazz arena in the twenties and kept stomping until they hit the top of the American music scene. The Big Band Era tasted roughly ten years and left an impact that continues to be felt, both directly and indirectly. The most successful orchestras had their own distinct sound and fiercely loyal following, but for every "name" band mere were dozens who stopped short of making the national scene. There was not a night when the airwaves were not filled with wondrous riffs and spirited solo statements from star sidemen, "brought to you live for your dancing and listening pleasure" from some hotel or ballroom.
Big band music was exciting and functional; one could dance to it, romance to it, and Glenn Miller even had them marching to it. The top bandleaders became glamorous figures who received movie star treatment from the press, were courted by politicians, and had young fans clamoring for autographs. Fans often behaved in very much the same frenzied manner as Beatles followers would a couple of decades later, and, as always, an older generation shook its head.
Not surprisingly, interest in the trendy mix of brass and reeds peaked and the Era fell victim to ever-shifting public taste, redirected lifestyles, and a post-war economy. But while the spotlight shifted away from them, the big bands never left the scene altogether; the most successful band leaders weathered the storm, and some were so firmly established that their orchestras continued even after their death — we call them ghost bands. The big bands left a rich legacy, however, for they were breeding grounds for the great soloists of the Swing Era, and there never was better training for individual jazz players.
The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra owes a debt to the great orchestras of the past, but, as Ellington put it, "things ain't what they used to be.' While Toshiko's band features all the bells and whistles of its famous predecessors, it stomps and swings with a different purpose.
Since the sixties, waning public interest and shrunken budgets have made it increasingly difficult to keep an established band together, not to mention start a new one. In 1973, when Toshiko's orchestra started to take shape, such a venture was labeled foolhardy, at best. So why did she do it?
"It was more or less an accident,'' she explains. The thought first occurred to Toshiko in 1967. "Back then, I wrote five tunes for my Town Hall concert, and when I heard the band play them I thought well, that's what I would like to do; of course I didn't do it, for many good reasons, the main one being the economy — I was barely surviving.” Indirectly, those 1967 compositions led to the band's formation six years later. "We formed it because Lew, then a regular member of the 'Tonight Show orchestra, was very bored with the LA. jazz scene. He had heard the tunes I wrote for my Town Hall concert, back in 1967, and he thought it would be wonderful to have the guys get together and play those tunes — that's how it started.
We had some rehearsals and I heard some great ensemble playing, which inspired me, because I had never been involved with a big band before. So I thought that this might be a wonderful way for me to leave something behind, I could build a library. All these years, up to that point, I was so conditioned to believe that my music was quickly forgotten; my records disappeared fast and became collector's items, because they were so hard to get. I thought, if I dropped dead, no one was going to miss me."
Word of the band's rehearsals got out and almost created a demand. "It was and will always be the music that makes me keep the band going — we all did it for the sake of the music” Toshiko points out. "Fortunately, during the first ten years of the band, in California, I found that the musicians were very enthusiastic, and we would get together regularly, every Wednesday morning. No one expected to go out on the road, but people learned of the band by word of mouth, and they wanted to hear it — so you might say that it was kind of an organic thing, the band was organically grown. Most big bands start out as a business venture, but this one just happened — it was an extension of me, and if s very difficult for me to think of it in any other way."
During its first ten years, in California, the personnel remained fairly intact, but Toshiko finds it more difficult to keep her repertory company together since moving to New York in 1983. "The past four years or so have been more difficult, because of the economy,” she points out. "'I mean, tours are almost a thing of the past, even five-day tours; it's just isolated bookings, single concert dates. Especially here in New York where many musicians are in the same position that I was in 25 years ago, they're barely surviving. So its very difficult to hold a musician for one single concert. Some people think a big band is basically the book, and that you can just take your music anywhere and have it played by local musicians, but that is not how it works. In California, although we met for rehearsal every Wednesday, some of the musicians would look at the music and say that it was as if they were seeing it for the first time, because they had had so many other jobs since the last rehearsal."
Such difficulties belie the precision that is so much in evidence on these recordings. Toshiko explains: "We really lucked out by having a ten-day tour just before the recording. We played at Kimball's East in the San Francisco Bay area and we played these numbers every night, then we went into the studio the day after we came home to New York. The band sounded so good that sometimes when I listen to the recordings I am touched by the performance. I think that’s the way it should be, you are supposed to record after you have spent a lot of time playing it, but in reality it's vice versa — you record first, then play, so I am very lucky that we had the opportunity to do it in the right order."
Toshiko continues to tour as a pianist, with small groups of her own, as does Lew, but one has a feeling that the band's the thing and that they play on — often in separate corners of the world — to feed all that brass and reeds. Toshiko's compositions and imaginative charts are what sets this orchestra apart from others; she likes to paint vivid pictures with her scores.
"My music is mostly programmatic," she explains. "Most of the big band writers were arrangers rather than composers, except for Ellington, of course — they played popular tunes and had a singer, and so on, but their music wasn't programmatic, it didn't tell a story. In my mind, it is very important to tell a story. My music has to have a certain attitude, it must reflect my view of certain things — that's what I like to bring into the music I write — a point of view. That's the difference between a writer and an arranger. Duke was a writer, his music told stories."
"It does not tell a story," says Toshiko of Harlequin Tears, the set’s brightly bouncing opening number, "but I had a certain grand opera in mind when I wrote it." Lew Tabackin's tenor sax and Luis Bonilla' s trombone are featured.
"Lew has a particular thing about ballads,” says Toshiko. "Mainly it's Strayhom, Monk and Ellington, those are the kinds of tunes that he is especially fond of, but he also wrote the only programmatic piece we have in this album, Desert Lady"
Lew's inspiration for this composition — which he originally recorded with a quartet, in 1989 — came from a Japanese film about a woman who lives in a sand dune. He has described it as "a kind of narrative thing that conjures up a vision,” but Toshiko saw something else when she heard. "I thought it had a Near-Eastern feeling,” she says. "It made me think of Morocco or Pakistan, and it reminded me of a documentary film I had seen, about Northern Africa — this film had some Somalian ladies making really incredible sounds. So I turned it into Desert Lady-Fantasy."
Toshiko obtained a tape of the African women making the unusual vocal sounds that had so intrigued her, and wove it into her chart, just before Conrad Herwig's trombone solo — the effect is quite extraordinary. Besides the Somalian ladies and Herwig's trombone, Toshiko's fantasy extension to Desert Lady features Lew's lavishly rounded flute, and adds percussionist Daniel Ponce to the band.
If not programmatic, Toshiko's mellow, straight-ahead Hangin' Loose is certainly a functional piece. "We use it for relief," she explains. "It's a good number to follow up a heavier piece with." A popular number, Hangin' Loose has been in the band's repertory for several years; it was originally written for Lew, "basically to expose my low notes,” he explains. Here, flanked by two Tabackin tenor statements, are solos by trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, trombonist Herb Besson, and altoist Jerry Dodgion.
Hiroko's Delight is named after Hiroko Onoyama, assistant to Mr. Morita, the chairman of the Sony Corporation of America. "She is the one who opened the door at Sony in our behalf,” says Toshiko. "Without her efforts, our 21st anniversary concert (Carnegie Hall Concert— Columbia CK 48805)... would not have been recorded — she was the catalyst, so I thought I'd dedicate a tune to her.” The band's trumpet section is featured prominently on Hiroko's Delight the order of solos being John Eckert, Joe Magnarelli and Greg Gisbert; the tenor solo is by Walt Weiskopf.
“It's very difficult to write for Lew,” says Toshiko, “There was a time when it seemed like we were losing all the great tenor saxophonists, and when Ben Webster died, Lew wrote a very short ballad, 16 bars, called Yet Another Tear. I had that in mind when I asked him to write another such piece for himself to play in this album.” The result was Broken Dreams, a lovely, melancholic tune that features Lew's tenor throughout.
The set's final number is Bebop a tune written by Dizzy Gillespie, who once referred to it as "another tune I stole from myself." Toshiko decided to include it as a memorial to Dizzy, who passed away in 1993. Jim Snidero’s alto and Greg Gisbert's trumpet soar through Toshiko's well-oiled arrangement which has the brass and reed sections cooking up a storm that would have delighted the composer. "I worked with Dizzy several times,” she points out, "and his kind of music is what I was raised on. My orchestra is a concert band, like the one Dizzy had in the late forties, and by now I hope that people who hear my music can tell that it's mine.” Indeed they can.
The following video features Toshiko’s arrangement of Hiroko’s Delight with John Eckert doing the honors on trumpet along with Joe Magnarelli and Greg Gisbert, Walt Weiskopf on tenor sax and Terry Clark on drums.