Air and space to breathe with Akiyoshi

Jazz: TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI ORCHESTRA; Brecon Jazz Festival
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To call the pianist, composer and bandleader Akiyoshi the Japanese Duke Ellington, as some have done, is not really very helpful. For a start, she's Manchurian, born in Dairen in 1929, although she relocated to Japan in 1946 before moving to America to study at Berklee a decade later. The muted colours of her orchestral palette are also much closer to Gil Evans's than they are to the richer hues of the Duke. And although Akiyoshi is relatively unknown here she's a star in her own right: big in Japan and just about everywhere else too, with a heavy rep as the best of the post- swing bandleaders. From the opening notes of the opening number it was clear that this was no snow-job: Akiyoshi and her band are very, very good.

That the big band has become the most neglected of jazz forms is due mainly to economics but also to a widespread, and largely justified, feeling that we've heard it all before: screaming trumpets, melodramatic arrangements, big blowing sessions for superannuated soloists squeezing their career- highlights into a couple of choruses. With Akiyoshi, there is air and space to breathe. By often favouring the lightness of the flute for the reeds section, she makes the bright colours of the brass seem darker and more expressive; by restricting the round of solos to a minimum she is able to keep the structure of each composition in the foreground; and by frequently keeping the overall orchestral sound on the quiet side, when the band really blows the resulting G-force knocks us back into our seats with a thump.

Many of the compositions have a nifty Sixties "Mission Impossible" feel about them (and its composer Lalo Schifrin might be a useful, if limited, reference point), the effect enhanced by the CIA-style suits of the mainly young and anonymous-looking bandsmen. While Akiyoshi plays some impressive, un-showy piano, the main solo spotlight goes to the tenor sax and flute of Lew Tabackin, who is also her husband. Serious of mien, an eminence grise as the CIA-men's head honcho has a right to be, Tabackin nevertheless looks like he's barely suppressing an urge to go native and put on a Hawaiian shirt, rocking on his heels and bending low as he plays exquisitely expressive arabesques on the changes of each tune.

The highlight was "Farewell to Mingus", a tribute to Akiyoshi's ex-employer, with Tabackin's weeping tenor weaving in and out of a mournful trombone solo before the leader gradually called in her troops with stark, plangent stabs of harmony, the tonal colours unfurling like flags.

To go immediately from Akiyoshi to a nearby outdoor stage for The Blind Boys of Alabama was, appropriately, like dying and going to heaven. Opening with an astonishingly soulful "I Believe" (a tribute to Sir Harry Secombe perhaps?), they just about sang their hearts out. It was strong stuff and if they'd held a revival meeting at the end of the show, we would all have signed up for Jesus.

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