Swinging: The Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band is a wonderful improbability. It combines a Japanese pianist/composer who was born in Manchuria, a virtuoso tenor-saxophone/flute player from Philadelphia---who is also the compser's husband---and jazz infused with traditional Japanese folk music. An unusual chemistry that some-how comes together in the most critically acclaimed and exciting band to hit the scene since Sun Ra discovered space travel. Up to now, the band has existed to perform the music of Akiyoshi, who is its conductor.
"The band is her vehicle," said Tabackin. "It's my responsibility as the featured soloist to try to express what she has written and to add whatever I have to offer." Perhaps that isn't such a bad way to operate a marriage.
Now, after ten recordings of her own music, Akiyoshi has turned the tables. For the first time, on Tanuki's Night Out (JAM), the band plays Akiyoshi's arrangements of Tabackin's compositions. The album is a sweet abstraction of a sexy old Japanese legend.
"It's a gesture of my appreciation to Lew for putting up with me for all these years," his wife confessed. "He encouraged me, and that was how the band was formed." She paused. "I think he writes happier tunes. He doesn't have a nervous, neurotic side like I have," she giggled.
"We didn't really expect the band to evolve into what we're doing right now," continued Akiyoshi, whose relaxed, good humor hints neither at her "neurotic side" nor at the power and intricacy of her music.
The band began nearly a decade ago as a weekly jam in a Los Angeles musicians' union rehearsal hall rented for 50 cents. The players donated their services. Slowly, Akiyoshi and Tabackin put together a live concert and an album deal to try to make some money for the musicians. Their first album, Kogun, became a big hit in Japan and later in the U. S. Since then, they've been as successful as a big band can be---awards, record dates, tours---but survival is tricky for a jazz band. It's expensive to keep it going. Symphony orchestras have patrons and matching grants; jazz bands don't. Consequently, there aren't many outward signs of success.
But it's an institution. "We've been rehearsing Wednesday mornings at the musicians' union since 1973," said Tabackin. And whenever they play, they're ready.