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Sunday, April 23, 2006

A pianist who opened minds, and doors - The Boston Globe

A pianist who opened minds, and doors - The Boston GlobeJAZZ
A pianist who opened minds, and doors
Toshiko Akiyoshi, a Berklee pioneer, returns to Boston

By Andrew Gilbert, Globe Correspondent | April 23, 2006

No jazz musician from abroad has ever made as immediate and far-reaching an impact in the United States as Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Before she even came to America, she had already so impressed pianist Oscar Peterson that he touted her to impresario Norman Granz, who recorded the young pianist in Tokyo with Peterson's formidable rhythm section in 1953. When she alighted in Boston 50 years ago to study at the Berklee College of Music, she was an instant sensation as the school's first Japanese student, appearing on television and landing a regular gig at the city's top jazz club, Storyville, while opening doors to the campus for women and Japanese-born players.

Akiyoshi returns to the city on Wednesday for two shows at Scullers with powerhouse tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Mark Taylor. In many ways, her influence still reverberates at Berklee, which was a struggling enterprise with about 350 students when she arrived in January 1956. Now, about 10 percent of the school's enrollment, or approximately 300 students, are Japanese.

''She was an immediate force on the campus," says saxophonist Larry Monroe, Berklee's associate vice president for international programs, noting that a succession of great Japanese musicians followed Akiyoshi to the school, including saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, trumpeter Tiger Okoshi, and pianist Makoto Ozone.

''The Berk family frankly didn't have a lot of money for scholarships, but somehow they brought her here," Monroe continues. ''At first she was a novelty item, but she wasn't a normal student in any sense. She was already an extraordinary, gifted, and quite complete musician, and she performed with all the great players in Boston."

In recognition of her accomplishments as a musician and contributions to the school, Berklee presented Akiyoshi with an honorary doctor of music degree in 1998. She appreciates the unique role she played at the school and the way in which the limelight benefited both her and Berklee. She also points out that she arrived in the United States at a propitious moment. A virtually peerless, Bud Powell-besotted pianist in Tokyo, Akiyoshi came to America seeking out players better than herself, and she thrived when she found them here.

''The jazz scene wasn't quite so business driven," says Akiyoshi, 75, in a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment. ''Everything was very open. If you knew the tune you could sit in, and I consider that my valuable experience."

Starting with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet, Akiyoshi had the chance to play with many of jazz's greatest musicians. She took over the piano several times when Miles Davis brought his quintet into the Storyville jazz club, once with John Coltrane, and another time with Sonny Rollins. ''Miles always leaned on the piano," Akiyoshi recalls. ''He's looking at my hands and I'm frozen. He said, 'Are you nervous?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Don't be, but I understand, I felt like that with Bird.' "

Before long, Akiyoshi was leading her own quartet at the famed jazz club four nights a week. She played the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in 1956, and George Wein started presenting her annually at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Despite all the attention, Akiyoshi initially planned to return to Japan, but by the time she graduated in 1959 she felt that she hadn't learned enough. She had also married a Berklee professor, the great alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, so instead of heading back to Tokyo, she moved to New York, where she gained more recognition playing with Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, and Donald Byrd.

But it was with her second husband, saxophonist and flutist Tabackin, that Akiyoshi did her most profound work. When his gig in Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra moved to Los Angeles in 1972, the couple relocated to the West Coast. Before long, they had created a big band stocked with top LA studio players that became a vehicle for her extraordinary compositions and arrangements, blending Japanese influences with orchestral bebop.

She documented the groundbreaking sound on a series of classic records for RCA such as ''Long Yellow Road," ''Tales of a Courtesan," and ''Road Time" (albums that are criminally out of print in the United States). In the early 1980s, they moved back to New York and re-created the orchestra, though instead of recruiting veterans, they turned the band into a proving ground for talented young players.

In recent years, Akiyoshi has concentrated on her trio and solo work. The time-intensive nature of creating big band charts left her too little time to practice, and she decided to disband her celebrated orchestra when she found herself dissatisfied with her keyboard technique. But the challenge isn't merely getting her bebop chops back to the level that amazed Oscar Peterson. She's seeking to capture her music's fusion of jazz and Japanese influences in a small group setting.

''When you have certain horns, it's comparatively easy to convey some elements of my heritage," Akiyoshi says. ''But in a limited piano, bass, and drums situation, to convey that to the listener, that's something I'm working on."

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