Osaka organ queen: Atsuko Hashimoto

    The Japanese B3 player has been tearing it up in Osaka since the 90s as well as cutting it with America's finest

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    Atsuko Hashimoto

    “She started off with Shiny Stockings,” Jeff Hamilton told me recently, speaking of the first time he remembers jamming with Osaka Hammond B3 Queen Atsuko Hashimoto more than 20 years ago. “We locked right in,” continued Hamilton. “It was kind of magical that this was all working – it sounded like we had been playing together for years.”

    Atsuko and her guitarist husband Yutaka were holding forth at a joint called the Don Shop, located across the boulevard from the old Osaka Blue Note where Jeff was appearing with Oscar Peterson.* Jeff recalls a local bass player telling the drummer he should hear this exciting organist, so he had come.

    Jimmy Smith’s The Cat was an epiphany for the 16-year-old Hashimoto: ‘I listened and copied out the score by ear. I practised until, finally, I could play it’

    Throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s, the Hashimoto jams became the gig for visiting luminaries looking to sit in with top local talent. A few who showed up to join the dynamic duo included John McLaughlin, Grady Tate, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Goldings and others. Things cooled a bit when the Blue Note changed locations and dropped their jazz-only music policy, but the Hashimotos continued to tear up the local scene.

    Atsuko’s playing makes clear what the fuss is all about. “She has total command of her instrument,” Jeff told me in a telephone interview, adding: “That allows her to have her own ideas of how she wants to improvise. You don’t hear her playing herself into a corner . . . she’s always serving the music with her improvisation.”

    Like her principal influence, Jimmy Smith, she employs the full range of the B3’s potential in serving the music. Her left hand lays down a solid bass line, leaving the right free to spin out seemingly effortless solos on the top console. Her feet bump the bass line on ballads and kick the pedals for added oomph on uptempo numbers. On breakneck bebop romps, she builds mind-boggling momentum, producing great waves of articulate sound seemingly at odds with her diminutive physical stature.

    Her solo statements are rich in content while swinging mightily. She knows how to sculpt a solo, building gradually before resolving to sensational crescendos.

    The range of tonal colors and effects she conjures from an organ astounds, yet never descends to mere showboating. She brings the same facility and finesse to everything she plays, whether bebop, ballads, blues or funk. Much of the time she plays with a beatific smile on her face, an indication of her immersion in the music.

    Yutaka’s mastery of his instrument perfectly complements his wife’s virtuosity. He plays crisply articulated solos at scorching tempos. On ballads his ravishing tone can bring a noisy audience to a respectful silence. He handles complex chorded sequences, à la Wes Montgomery, ringing harmonics, chitlin’ circuit funk and blues, all with ease. He’s also something of a comedian. One time I watched as he picked up a microphone and applied it to the strings in the manner of a Delta-blues slide guitarist. Someone handed him a shot glass instead, and he was off, turning in a wacky spaced-out solo which had everyone grinning.

    Atsuko began piano lessons aged four and showed interest in her parents’ jazz records before she entered high school. But her future really dawned in a moment of epiphany at 16 when the family piano tuner lent her Jimmy Smith’s The Cat. “I listened”, Atsuko told me in a 2005 interview, “and copied out the score by ear. I practised until, finally, I could play it.” Such dedication to mastering jazz led her to the Machi Music School in Osaka to study the idiom formally. There she met Yutaka and their musical partnership began. By the time they married in their 20s, both were established players on the local scene.

    In 1999 Pete Fallico, a promoter, radio personality and Hammond organ aficionado in Santa Cruz, arranged a tour of California for the Hashimotos. As Fallico tells it: “I was particularly proud to bring both Atsuko and Yutaka . . . to the San Jose Jazz Festival. There they mesmerised the outdoor crowd with their energy, savvy and pure love of this wonderful music we call jazz.” In subsequent years, there were additional US trips for tours and festivals on the West Coast.

    Hamilton also figured in their musical successes in the US. In 2008 he joined Atsuko and veteran sax man Houston Person for a recording on the Azica label called Introducing Atsuko Hashimoto. Atsuko told me she wished she had had more time to rehearse with Houston, but to me her caution says more about her perfectionism than about any deficiency with the record. A second CD with Jeff and Yutaka on guitar – Time After Time – followed. Their third collaboration, a Capri Records set called Until the Sun Comes Up, stands as probably the best example of their combined artistry. Guitarist Graham Dechter – 23 at the time – rounds out this exciting trio. In addition to some fine playing, the album showcases Atsuko’s considerable arranging skills.

    The trio on this warmly recommended CD (recorded August 2010) was initially assembled in March 2010 for the annual Friends of Frank DeMiero Jazz Festival at Edmonds Community College in Washington State. As this was Atsuko’s Washington debut, very few people in the sold-out auditorium had even heard of her. I attended the concert and witnessed with my own eyes how she mesmerised the crowd, creating a large roomful of new fans within minutes of taking the stage. It’s a repeat scenario whenever she plays a fresh festival or club where people are experiencing her for the first time.

    She would surely be better known were she based in LA or New York with some savvy promoter handling her affairs. While maybe not destined to become a household name, Atsuko Hashimoto enriches and entertains all who hear her fascinating rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?

    *Instead of the Don Shop, Atsuko recalls they first met in a small club in Osaka’s Dotonbori district in 2000.