Toshiko Akiyoshi: Toshiko’s Blues – Quartet & Trios 1953-1958

Thorough collection of mid-50s work by the Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell inspired Japanese pianist is illuminating but the best was to come


Although she is remembered and celebrated as co-leader (with husband Lew Tabackin) of arguably the most accomplished and innovative big bands of the 1980s, Manchurian-born (1929) Toshiko Akiyoshi started her jazz life as a pianist. Her acknowledged influences were Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell.

An obviously charmed Whitney Balliett commented: “None of the foreign musicians who occasionally land on our shore has been more comely, modest, or accomplished than Toshiko Akiyoshi.” Soon after her American arrival she told him “One time I wrote out all the notes in solo on Teddy Wilson record of Sweet Lorraine and put his notes beside straight melody to compare. I study difference hard and then write down new figures of my own, learn them by heart, and play them in solo next day with band. Great success.”

She had been “discovered” in Tokyo by Oscar Peterson on a 1952 JATP tour. He was impressed, and persuaded Norman Granz to record her with his rhythm section of Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard, released in the US as Toshiko’s Piano. Poorly recorded, it did offer an uptempo track (Shadrack), a pensive Solidado and a refreshing version of Gone With The Wind but aroused little interest. After she settled (and studied) in Boston – at the Berklee College of Music – and in New York where she played night clubs and jazz venues, her records began to receive favourable critical attention. Toshiko also began to develop a more mature and distinctive voice.

In Boston she was befriended by George Wein, who produced and recorded her first album in the United States. It was a considerable improvement on her Tokyo session, featuring the sympathetic and sensitive support of Paul Chambers and Ed Thigpen. Most of the compositions are by Toshiko herself, and she is particularly impressive on Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Between Me And Myself and Blues For Toshiko.

On the 1956 date with Oscar Pettiford and Roy Haynes, she sounds jauntier and more relaxed than on her Wein album. A haunting No Moon At All and a lyrical and inventive Thou Swell can be recommended. A trio session with Gene Cherico and Jake Hanna, captured at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, has another rendition of Between Me And Myself, a tranquil reading of I’ll Remember April, and a finger-flashing and highly rhythmic Blues For Toshiko.

There is little to choose between the remaining 1957 New York studio sessions, although an initially mock-heroic The Man I Love segues into an exploratory and foot tapping outing, and is possibly the best track. After You’ve Gone is delivered at a hectic pace, while Bags’ Groove receives a long (6.48) work-out – but one with too many drum interpolations. The final two low-fi tracks from The Subject Is Jazz TV show, The Third Movement, part of her Jazz Suite For Orchestra, and Don’t Get Around Much Any More pass muster, but only just.

With an introductory essay by Jordi Pujol and original sleeve notes by Norman Granz, Nat Hentoff and Bill Simon, these are examples of early Toshiko in congenial small group settings. Not essential, but palatable in measured doses. Her best (small group and orchestral) achievements were yet to come.

CD1: (1) What Is This Thing Called Love?; Gone With The Wind; I Want To Be Happy; Toshiko’s Blues; Shadrack; Solidado; Squatty Roo; Laura; (2) Between Me And Myself; It Could Happen To You; Kyo-shu; Homework; Manhattan Address; Softly As In A Morning Sunrise; Soshu Yakyoku; Sunday Afternoon; Blues For Toshiko; (3) No Moon At All; Pea, Bee And Lee; Thou Swell (72.19)
CD2: (4) Between Me And Myself; Blues For Toshiko; I’ll Remember April; Lover; The Man I Love; Minor Mood; After You’ve Gone; We’ll Be Together Again; Tosh’s Fantasy: Down A Mountain / Phrygian Waterfall / Running Steam; Bags’ Groove; Imagination; Studio J; (5) The 3rd Movement; Don’t Get Around Much Any More (60.58)

Akiyoshi (p) on all tracks with:
(1) Herb Ellis (g); Ray Brown (b); J.C. Heard (d). Tokyo, 13-14 November 1953.
(2) Paul Chambers (b); Ed Thigpen (d). Boston, 1956.
(3) Oscar Pettiford (b); Roy Haynes (d). New York, 1956.
(4) Gene Cherico (b); Jake Hanna (d); Newport Jazz Festival, RI, 5 July and NYC, 1957.
(5) Eddie Safranski (b); Ed Thigpen (d). The Subject Is Jazz TV show. NYC, 25 May 1958.
Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 1132