The Troy Street Observer

Jun 17, 1983: The New Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra Debuts

Photo of Tabackin and Akiyoshi
Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi

The new Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin made its public debut at Sandy’s Jazz Revival in suburban Beverly.

Boston was, and probably still is, a special place for Toshiko Akiyoshi. She arrived here from her native Japan in January 1956 to study at the Berklee School, where she was the first international student enrolled. She was 26 years old and an accomplished musician back home, a good enough pianist to have played twice with the Tokyo Symphony. She graduated in 1959 with a long list of accomplishments to her name.

In 1972, Akiyoshi and her husband, saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, moved to Los Angeles and formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band. During the 1970s, it became one of the most prominent big bands on the scene, a poll winner and award nominee, with such heralded albums as Kogun, Long Yellow Road, and Insights to its credit. But their work wasn’t “commercial” enough, and prohibitive travel costs kept the band off the East Coast—it first played Boston in 1981, for example.

In 1982 Akiyoshi broke up the band, and she and Tabackin moved to New York. Only trombonist Hart Smith and drummer Joey Baron made the trip with them. They formed a new band, this one called the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin, and this band gave its premiere performance at Sandy’s Jazz Revival, the club on Cabot Street in Beverly.

In his review, Ernie Santosuosso wrote “The New York change of address hasn’t eroded the band’s performance. Its ensemble voicings, stop-and-go tempo changes and soloists, particularly Tabackin on tenor and flute, continue to be first-rate…The band’s music is lush with imagery.” He called out trumpeter Brian Lynch on “Elegy,” a song Akiyoshi wrote while a Berklee student; baritonist Gary Smulyan on “Relaxing at Zell Am See,” from 1982’s European Memoirs; and trombonist Conrad Herwig for “Tanuki’s Night Out,” from the 1981 LP of the same name. Of course, Tabackin had a solo on each of these as well, and if there was a flaw on the night, it was that Tabackin was perhaps too much in the solo spotlight.

It was nearly a full house on this new band’s very first night. In that, it was like a Broadway-bound play staging its tryout in Boston before hitting the White Way. Here Akiyoshi and Tabackin were road-testing the band before hitting the Village Vanguard.

Here is video of the TAJO recorded in Tokyo in 1984. The tune is “Happy Hoofer,” with trombonist Hart Smith and tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf the soloists.

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