Music Review – Toshiko Akiyoshi

I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to say so on this site yet, but I’m a rather big fan of the Japanese jazz scene.  Since anything that I’m a big fan of is fair game for this blog, here’s a post on Japanese jazz.  I feel that it’s only fair to start with classical jazz, since the jazz scene in Japan has seen some major transformations over the years.  When you talk about classic Japanese jazz, you really do need to start with Toshiko Akiyoshi.  Well, you don’t really have to start with her, but she’s the earliest I know of.  I don’t actually do that much research, so if you want actual facts, look them up yourself.

Either way, Toshiko Akiyoshi is very old jazz, and while some of her stuff doesn’t seem to stand the test of time when compared to the classics of American jazz, some of her work stands out to this day.  I’ll be featuring a few as we go on, but to be honest, Toshiko Akiyoshi’s work has probably been the hardest to get my hands on.

Let’s begin with a rather old 1960’s performance from Toshiko of the song “Village”.  Take a listen:

It’s got a beat and a rhythm that is unmistakable for any jazz piece, but the melodic nature evokes a supreme technicality in Toshiko’s playing, something that is common in most of her songs.  Overall, this is probably one of my favorites of her performances.

Let’s move on to something more typical.  Here’s the Toshiko Akiyoshi Quintet doing their rendition of the Miles Davis composition “So What”.

Compared to the original, Toshiko Akiyoshi’s version seems a bit quicker, a bit more technical and, just maybe, a tad bit “sneakier”.  That’s the message I got from it anyways.  There’s almost a slyness, like the band is slinking away from the piece and the audience with every successive note.  However, the biggest distinction between the two is effect of changing the lead instrument from trumpet to piano.  With Miles, you have a drowsiness and flow, like your riding the music.  With Toshiko, it’s like chasing the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, wondering if it isn’t all just a big tease.

Here’s one last song for you guys.  From Toshiko’s 1957 album Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi, “Blues for Toshiko”.

You’ll notice that although the song had “blues” in the title, it’s unmistakably upbeat.  Perhaps this is due to the technical nature of Toshiko’s music taking over, but I sense this kind of whimsical nature in most of Toshiko’s work.  The nature of her music and her jazz seems to be happy.  That is what I found most striking about her as a musician.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the return of music reviews.  Have a great day!

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4 thoughts on “Music Review – Toshiko Akiyoshi

  1. Thanks for sharing! I have heard a lot of good things about her Big Band stuff she did together with Tabackin – but could not get my hands on any of it unfortunately. What do you think?

    1. It’s a shame that a large part of Toshiko’s repertoire is just unattainable, outside of simply going to Japan. Her work with Tabachkin is what I see as almost standard fare when it comes to conventional Big Band jazz music. It’s good, but not breaking any new ground. If anything, they play music that fits within the Big Band style as if they were playing in a trio/quartet/quintet etc. The only note I made was that Tabachkin’s technical style on the saxophone reminded me of Toshiko’s technical style on the piano. Judgement: Toshiko + Big Band don’t do much for me.

  2. A few of Toshiko’s albums are available digitally (ex. Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi), but I originally came across her music by chance. A musical acquaintance of mine passed on some of Toshiko’s older and harder-to-find albums that their father had gotten while on a trip to Japan. It was really just a chance encounter that put me onto her.
    Honestly, my experience with the Japanese jazz scene is purely form the modern angle (ex. quasimode, PE’Z etc.), all of whom will be featured on this site at some point. Those are much easier to find in a digital format in comparison.
    Speaking of which, quasimode has another fun take on “So What”, if you want to take a listen. I’ll be featuring it in their review. It comes out sounding almost sarcastic.

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