Saturday, May 9, 2020

Toshiko Akiyoshi: Traditionalist and Innovator

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I think the music in our library has the advantage in being all the work of just one writer. It has its own character, so that regardless of age, it sounds as though it could have been written today.”
- Toshiko Akiyoshi

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’s 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."
-Toshiko Akiyoshi as told to Chris Albertson

“The signature features of Toshiko Akiyoshi's compositional style are unmistakable. First of all, there is the rootedness in bebop, secondly the amalgamation of big band jazz with Japanese elements of music and thirdly the ingenious use of the woodwind section.”
- Gudrun Endress

Noh, which dates back to the 14th century, and Kabuki, which had its beginnings in the early 17th century, are both very stylized forms of Japanese drama.

The slightest movement of the hand, the assumption of a particular pose, the timing and nature of a mere utterance, can all have profound significance.

The musical accompaniment to these plays is also of importance in underscoring mood and adding dimension to a story’s plot and character development.

Although I am by no means expert in either Noh or Kabuki drama, I have attended performances of each and, through the tutoring of my hosts, gained an appreciation for the fact that each has a tradition as a highly codified and regulated art form.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I made my first purchase of a recording by the Toshiko Akiyoshi Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra and heard elements of both Noh and Kabuki in the arrangements of the band’s music.

I mean, I’ve always known that Jazz was ecumenical in extent, influence and application, but what was on display in the music of the Toshiko Akiyoshi Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra was downright catholic in the all-inclusive and all-pervasive sense of that word.

As Len Lyons and Don Perlo explain in their Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters:

“Adopting Duke Ellington as her role model, Toshiko writes and arranges virtually everything for her sixteen-piece band. … Ducal pieces of mood, color and texture, and original techniques that synthesize Jazz with traditional Japanese instruments and themes [are employed]. ….

In 1972, Toshiko moved to Los Angeles with [her husband], Lew Tabackin, who as a member Doc Severinson band, was being relocated to Hollywood as part of the move from NYC by Johnny Carson’s Tonight TV show. The following year they formed a big band out of local studio musicians. Many of Toshiko’s compositions are built around Tabackin’s flute and exciting Sonny Rollins-influenced tenor saxophone playing.

She once compared piano playing to black-and-white brush painting and big band music to painting with colors. Using the band as a laboratory, she matured rapidly as a composer. Bright tonal colors became one of her trademarks, others being a buoyant sense of swing and allusions to traditional Japanese music.” [pp.25-26]

In effect, Toshiko followed the admonition that is given as a challenge to every artist: “Use what you know as the basis for your creativity.”

Toshiko took aspects of the cultural traditions she grew up with, in this case, Noh and Kabuki drama, along with other traditional Japanese fables, parables and myths and incorporated them into the other mainstay of her life – Jazz.

She innovated within traditional Japanese drama and the tradition of big band Jazz essentially by merging elements of one with the other.

Blending these seemingly disparate elements, Toshiko created a series of elaborate and extended compositions with exotic titles such as Four Seasons of Morita Village, Hiroko’s Delight, Notorious Tourist from the East, Kogun, Since Perry, Yet Another Tear, Salted Gink Nuts, Tanuki’s Night Out, Tales of a Courtesan, Hiroshima Rising from the Abyss, Long Yellow Road, Suite for Koto and Jazz Orchestra, Drum Conference [a multi-part suite featuring Japanese Taiko drums], and After Mr. Teng.

For someone with a minimum amount of formal training in theory and composition, orchestration and arranging, Toshiko has produced a staggering body of compositions.

How this concept of combining East and West cultural elements evolved in her music is described, in part, in the following interview with Ian Carr which Toshiko and Lew gave for BBC Radio while appearing at the Brecon Jazz Festival in Wales, UK in 1995.

Ian: “Why do you work together so well?”

Toshiko [to Lew]: “You want to go first? [giggles]

Lew: “[laughing] No, you can go first.”

Toshiko: “I think there are two main reasons. The first is attitude. We approach playing Jazz very sincerely and try to be the best we can be on our instruments. Secondly, I would like to think that he respects my work and I certainly respect his playing so we don’t barge into each other’s business.”

Lew: “She doesn’t play the saxophone and I don’t write charts [big band arrangements].

Ian: “You have done some writing?”

Lew: “I’ve written some tunes, but I don’t do any arranging and she doesn’t play the saxophone and I don’t play the piano. We try to keep our specialties separate and try not to get in each other’s way.  If we both were writers, maybe we’d have this constant disagreement of whatever.  But we fulfill our own little spheres.

Ian: “How have you managed to keep such a consistently good band together? Have you got a regular weekly thing?”

Toshiko: “Unfortunately, we lost our regular Monday night place some years ago when it was closed by the city. But  I think the main reasons the band works so well together is that musicians need to belong to the band. Without their cooperation, a band like this wouldn’t exist. We don’t play Moonlight in Vermont, we don’t play One O’clock Jump or Take the ‘A’ Train. It appeals to a very limited because everything is original; something they haven’t heard before.

In this situation, musicians have to find the music worthy to the point that they are willing to make some sacrifices to make it work. We do rehearse on a frequent basis  and we are lucky that a lot of the same musicians have remained with us over the years.

Ian: “So maybe you got the luck you deserve which is maybe the real luck, of course.” But what is the work situation like in America for a band such as yours?”

Lew: “For a band like Toshiko’s, we don’t work that much. As she explained, it’s not a dance band. We are a concert band and we have our share of gigs, but we have to advise the musicians of schedules so that they hold the dates for us. Fortunately, we manage to have a very consistent band and the turn-over rate is very gradual.

Ian: “So you both are obviously working at other things all the time?”

Lou: “I’m on the road all the time.”

Ian: “Are you getting a lot of composing commissions, Toshiko?”

Toshiko: Yes, actually, I have one for next year [1996] for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. We are going to be a main feature there and they have commissioned me to write something new for that.

We just came back from a China tour which is very unusual. I think our band was probably the first ‘major, noteworthy’ one to be in China. It was very exciting.”

Ian: “How many dates did you do in China?”

Toshiko: “We just had two concerts, but they were for NHK Television. Some people may know that I was born in Manchuria which is in China today and we were there in May and June of this year.”

But this European tour is very exciting for me and this is our first time at Brecon. Actually, this is my first time in any part of Great Britain as a performer.”

Ian: “How were the audiences in China, then? Were they good?

Toshiko: “We did two. One place is Dalian [previously known as Darien] where I attended high school. In those days, Dalian was an area of high culture. Not so much today. Today, music and culture is the farthest things from their mind. It’s very difficult to make a living, living quarters are very poor. But they were very curious and they came.

They were a different type of audience for us then the one we had in Shengyang, which is the capital of the particular province in Manchuria. We played at the music academy there and ninety-five per cent of the audience were familiar with classical music and music was a part of their lives. So they were much more sophisticated and had a different reaction.

But even in Dalian, where there is very little knowledge about music, they still liked some things which goes to show that music can be a very universal language. They really liked the exciting saxophone exchanges or the drum solos. [Lew concurs with Toshiko’s audience description]”

Ian: “So tell me about Ascent Records?”

Toshiko: “That was our own record label which we had some time ago. It’s like the story about the mountain not coming to you. The recording company we were with wasn’t making it.

Low didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but I was young and I didn’t realize how much work was involved. Everything from designing covers to all the other decisions. Of course, Lew helped me a bit, but not too much [laughter from all].

You have to package each of the demo copies to send to the press, and all these little things have to be done.

So when Sony-Columbia came along in 1991 and recorded us at Carnegie Hall, I was ready to quit our own label and go with them.

I don’t think I could do that again. It took a tremendous amount of energy and unfortunately as you get older you lose energy and have limited time.”

Ian: “So are you staying with Sony?”

Toshiko: “We had Desert Lady Fantasy come out last year on the label, but this is sort of a one-at-a-time deal so I have no idea.

Ian: “Perhaps, I should ask you some things about your personal life, but before I do, let me just say that I really liked some of the Eastern elements in some of the music you’ve done as well as the Western elements; particularly in that long suite, Minamata.”

Toshiko: “Actually, the first long suite that we recorded was Kourakan, in 1974, and that really came about. There was Nat Hentoff’s “Memorial to Duke” in The Village Voice. We all knew, but sometimes it has to be pointed out as Nat did,  that the Duke was always proud of his race.

Until that moment, I had never thought about looking into my heritage and that sort of opened my eyes to the fact that I have a different heritage than most American Jazz players and I should use that as a positive rather than a negative quality.

And perhaps through my different heritage, I could return something to American Jazz history, something that has been very good to me and not just take it for granted.”

Ian: “I think it was a wonderful thing because some of your most beautiful sonorities have come out in that area of your writing.”

Toshiko: “Thank you. I think that it is one of my most important contributions, that look into and discover those things about myself.”

Ian: “You must have been the very first Japanese musician to get any kind of international exposure.”

Toshiko: “Yes, it’s true. In 1953, the impresario Norman Granz had a tour of Japan with Oscar Peterson.  He came to hear my play and he thought I was worthy of being recorded. He gave me his rhythm section and Norman recorded me which was the first time a Japanese Jazz musician had been recorded by an American record label.”

Ian: “What I want to know is how does a young Japanese child growing up in Manchuria, which was a disputed area at the time, taking classical piano lessons; how does she come to Jazz? It must have been after you left Manchuria?”

Toshiko: “I think I have always been a student and that I will always be one. When I was in the First Grade, I heard a Third Grade student play a piece by Mozart. And I thought, ‘I would love to play like that.’ And that’s how I started playing piano.

After the war, we all had to come back to Japan. My parents lost everything. So I took a job in a dance hall so I could be near a piano. And one day, a Japanese record collector came to me and he wanted me to listen to some records by American Jazz pianists. It was a revelation. I learned how to play Jazz a little by ear from listening to records.

After a while, American servicemen would come to listen to me, some of whom could play Jazz and they taught me some things. But I learned mostly by listening to records.

People often ask me who my earliest piano influence were, but in those days, it wasn’t just the piano players, it could be the drummer, too. I learned from listening to everybody.”

Ian: “But the thing is, when you came to America in 1956, you very soon got into the top echelon, performing with people like Charlie Mariano….”

Toshiko: “That was until 1959. But when I arrived in 1956, I was very fortunate that I got a job playing four nights a week at the club, Storyville. And also, many groups would stop by and I would get a chance sometimes to sit-in with them while they played the club.

Later, in 1957 when I played the Hickory House in New York [the bassist] Oscar Pettiford used to come almost every night to sit-in.  All of these things were to my benefit.”

Ian: “What about the long, professional relationship that you had with [alto saxophonist] Charlie Mariano; that must have been very beneficial, too?”

Toshiko: “Yes, I always admired his playing. Yet, strangely enough, during our marriage, I don’t think tat we ever played in the house together. I always liked to practice by myself, and sometimes he would complain about that. Also, although we are both dedicated musicians, our attitudes about focusing on the music life was a little bit different.”

Ian: “Do you and Lew played together in the house?”

Lew: “Not much. Every once in a while we’d make an attempt at a little Bach, or something. But I’m in my little world and she’s in hers. [laughter]  Fortunately, we have space in between. We have a big enough space: I’m in the basement and she’s two floors above.

We work separately and then when the band has something happening, we come together. It’s a very special combination.”

It is very special: there’s not another big band like The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin and I doubt that one like it will appear in Jazz ever again.

It’s one thing to have the idea of melding cultural opposites, it’s quite another thing to bring it off and to create artistic excellence in the process.

You can hear the brilliance of Toshiko’s achievement in the following video of Toshiko’s big band which has as it’s audio track, her original composition – Kogun – which features the use of traditional tsuzumi drums and chanting from Japanese Noh drama thus giving the composition what Leonard Feather called “… a kind of East-meets-West cross-pollination, or, idiomatic double exposure ….”

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