JAZZ REVIEW : Captivating Akiyoshi Returns to Intimacy of a Piano Trio


Toshiko Akiyoshi looked a little lonely when she went on stage for her opening set Tuesday night at Catalina Bar & Grill.

Although the veteran pianist--perhaps the first prominent Japanese jazz artist--was initially known for her vigorously pianistic Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson-influenced solo style, she has spent most of the last two decades leading, playing with and writing for a succession of big bands. Only rarely has she been seen in the relatively naked setting of a piano trio, which makes her six-night appearance this week an especially engaging event.

Akiyoshi was thrown off base even before she started, when her scheduled drummer, Mickey Roker, was forced to cancel at the last minute. Fortunately Tootie Heath, a stellar replacement by any measure, was available to fill in.


Small, reserved and somewhat shy, she started slowly, not quite in sync with Heath and bassist Duane Burne. Endings of pieces were ragged, and a great deal of uncertain eye contact between the players indicated a lack of rehearsal and general connectedness. As the set continued, the music improved--less in terms of its togetherness as a trio performance, more in terms of Akiyoshi’s soloing.

Her years of composition and orchestration were clearly apparent in her playing. And it is always as fascinating to hear a jazz composer-arranger soloing as it is to hear a singer-songwriter performing one of their tunes.

In originals like “Remembering Bud” and standards like “I’m Old Fashioned” and “Sophisticated Lady,” Akiyoshi devised passages that sounded like instant compositions. Complex left-hand clusters were juxtaposed against rapid-fire right-hand melodic curlicues, and everything was assembled with a striking sense of clarity and intelligence. There were times when one could almost feel Akiyoshi constructing harmonies with a lush saxophone section or screaming brass in mind.

Akiyoshi is not a spectacular, outgoing artist. Her music demands concentration and involvement without reaching out to grab the listener. But, for an attentive audience, she provides a captivating view of the correlations between composition and improvisation.--DON HECKMAN

* Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $12 cover tonight and Sunday, $15 cover Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum. Akiyoshi performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.