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Jazz Reviews : Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra at Royce Hall

February 22, 1988|LEONARD FEATHER

Beauty and the beat were the predominant elements in the concert presented Friday by the Toshiko Akiyoshi Orchestra. Beauty was in the grace and skill of her writing (every arrangement was her own, as was every composition but one). The beat, whether in swinging 4/4 or a jazz waltz or a 5/4 blues, was present in full force whenever the situation called for it.

This was the orchestra's first appearance at Royce Hall in six years; at that time Akiyoshi still had her West Coast ensemble. The present New York personnel have brought themselves up to the level attained by the earlier group, and that is high praise indeed.

Many of the works were familiar, drawn from the repertoire of the California band. "Since Peary," with its shifting moods, tempos and tone colors, was a virtual concerto for the implacable tenor saxophone of Lew Tabackin, still the principal soloist and still a dual personality. His flute, often pure and legitimate in sound, achieved an exotic, Asian flavor on one number in a duet with drummer Terry Clarke on "Autumn Sea."

Of the other solos, the leader underplayed her role as a Bud Powell-inspired pianist; Frank Wess on alto sax brought a luxuriant quality to his own composition "Your Beauty is a Song of Love." Trumpeter John Eckert, without a microphone, came across like a brilliant extension of the 1960s Miles Davis. Jerry Dodgion on alto and several other hornmen did justice to Akiyoshi's superbly crafted music.

She has indeed accomplished the impossible. Though still unable to keep her band together on a full-time basis, she brings out in these 15 men a unified character and a timbral mixture that is without peer in contemporary jazz. Her writing for the five reed players, using a dozen permutations of saxes, clarinets, flutes and bass clarinet, attests most vividly to her genius.

Like this magnificent orchestra, she is sui generis, deserving of the numerous awards that have come her way since the original band was launched in the Southland in 1973.

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