Vinyl Spotlight: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Toshiko Meets Her Old Pals (King Records)

  • 1974 stereo pressing

Personnel:

  • Toshiko Akiyoshi, piano
  • Sadao Watanabe, alto saxophone
  • Akira Miyazawa, tenor saxophone
  • Masanaga Harada, bass (all but “Donna Lee” and “Quebec”)
  • Hachiro Kurita, bass (“Donna Lee” and “Quebec”)
  • Masahiko Togashi, drums (“So What” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”)
  • Hideo Shiraki, drums (“Donna Lee” and “Quebec”)
  • Takeshi Inomata, drums (“Old Pals” and “Watasu No Biethovin”)

Recorded March 7-8, 1961 at Suginami Koukaido (Suginami Public Hall), Tokyo and March 27, 1961 at Bunkyo Koukaido (Bunkyo Public Hall), Tokyo

Although for many years I knew nothing of Japanese jazz, our hobby has helped me become aware that the Japanese by and large have a deep, heartfelt appreciation of jazz music. Before I bought this album though, all I knew about Japanese jazz musicians was what a disgruntled New York City record store clerk told me once, that they didn’t know how to ‘swing’.

Seems like a fairly shortsighted opinion rooted in some sort of stereotype, but I think there’s ample evidence on Toshiko Meets Her Old Pals that the Japanese can play, and yes, some of them can clearly swing too. I was introduced to this album through Instagram’s @tallswami. He brought it to a jazz collector meetup at my apartment one night. Being that Swami a.k.a. Clifford is in the habit of bringing rare avant-garde to my place, my ears perked up when I heard hard bop coming through the speakers.

For Audio Engineering Nerds

Above all, I was immediately and utterly floored by the fidelity of this recording. The realism and detail is incredible, especially for 1961. The piano breathes and the tightly-tuned drums snap. Recorded in Japan, the wider spread of the instruments reminds me a little of several legendary American recording engineers including my favorite, Mr. Rudolph Van Gelder, and while I normally prefer the more ‘colorful’ sound coming out of Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio at this time, it’s hard to deny the jaw-dropping brilliance of more ‘accurate’ recordings like this.

Toshiko Meets Her Old Pals was recorded in two public halls in Tokyo, one of which was renovated and reopened in 2006 (Suginami), the other, according to Discogs, was demolished in 1977 before a new Civic Hall was built on the same site with the same name (Bunkyo) in 1994. The favorably dry sound of this recording leads me to speculate that either significant acoustic treatment was used in a more cavernous space or the album was recorded in smaller, less reverberant rooms…perhaps a combination of both.

The original Bunkyo Public Hall, Tokyo (via Discogs)

For Collectors

I was debating between seeking out this 1974 stereo pressing on King, the original label, and a compact disc reissue, both products of Japan. Copies of this album in any format are less than easy to come by, especially the LP presented here and especially here in the states (I decided to include three audio clips above as a consequence of this). As far as original pressings go, one might prematurely conclude that this album went unissued for over a decade after being recorded (I couldn’t find any evidence of original labels on the web). But careful investigation of Popsike reveals two deep groove copies, one mono and one stereo, sold on eBay several years ago.

Once again the Japanese have provided ample evidence of their vinyl-making mastery: the dead-black background of this pressing’s sonic palette was another thing that won me over the first time I heard it. As a result, I had it on my radar for several months with nothing in sight. Finally one popped up in the U.S. of all places, and I was fortunate to find a copy just as lovely as Clifford’s.

What’s not to love about the midcentury design of this building lobby, the bright red, extra-wide OBI, and our leader’s beaming cuteness?

For Music Lovers

I gather that Toshiko is well-known in the jazz collector community. Perhaps she has an allure that is the result of being different, sort of like the new kid in school. Beyond that, I can’t say I know any collectors who are deeply steeped in her catalog. A ten-inch LP of hers was released on Norgran in 1954, with two releases by Boston label Storyville following in 1956 while she was a student at Berklee (catalog numbers 912 and 918). Then in 1957 her live Newport festival performance was paired (rather oddly) on a Verve split-LP with accordionist Leon Sash. After laying to tape a trio LP for Verve later that year, Toshiko led another studio date in ’58, this time for the Metro Jazz label. Still based in New York two years later, Toshiko was no longer Akiyoshi, having married fellow musician Charlie Mariano, and in late 1960 she recorded Toshiko Mariano Quartet with her new hubby for Candid at Nola Studios.

Then we arrive back here. Rather, she arrived back in Japan after spending a good amount of time in America, and she quickly got to work recording. Toshiko’s first move here is bold, covering “So What”, a new classic all but two years young back in 1961. The band has a tendency to imitate their American counterparts, dodging in and out of moments of gratitude toward the original Kind of Blue session musicians. This tribute-style of playing caught me a little off-guard at first and I wasn’t sure whether to make heads or tails of it, especially with a negative stereotype of Japanese jazz musicians looming overhead. So I tapped Swami for his take. Always a man of few words with understated, deep musical knowledge, Clifford agreed about the band’s referential style but also found it “interesting”. ‘Nuff said.

At the end of side one the band smokes through Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”, then upon turning the record over we find the album’s crown jewel, “Quebec”. Composed by the leader’s then-husband Mariano, the tune helps the band find a mellow, slow-burning groove where Toshiko and her pals are at their best. The follow-up is “Old Pals”, an adorable blues penned by Toshiko herself. The rhythm section gets a makeover here as they do throughout but the small-room sound and intimate vibe remain.

Since the recording of this unsung classic, Toshiko has released dozens of albums and remained active as a recording artist up to the present day. And at 90 years old, one can be sure that she looks back on recording experiences like this with smiling eyes.