Toshiko Akiyoshi (piano)
Gone with the Wind (1953), George Wein Presents Toshiko Akiyoshi (1956), United Notions with Toshiko And Her International Jazz Sextet (1958), Toshiko Akiyoshi Recital (1961), Strive for Jive (1996), Let Freedom Swing (2007), The Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi
First woman to win best arranger and composer in a Down Beat readers poll, 14 Grammy nominations, honorary doctorates... Toshiko Akiyoshi is right up there with the greats of jazz. If only it was easier to get hold of her best music.
She was born in Manchuria of Japanese parents who moved back home after Word War II. A record collector introduced her to jazz with a record of Teddy Wilson playing "Sweet Lorraine". That was enough to get her hooked. On a tour of Japan, Oscar Peterson heard her playing in a club and suggested she moved to America.
The first few chords of her US debut, George Wein Presents... are pure Bud Powell but she soon starts mixing in elements of Japanese traditional music which became her trademark. Not so much that she'd end up filed under "World Jazz" (whatever that is), but enough to surprise even on the most familiar standards. Five tracks recorded in 1961 in Tokyo pop up under different names – Apple Music has it as Toshiko Akiyoshi Recital and it's tremendous, thanks also to a bassist and drummer who were a perfect fit. She even pulls off a swinging version of "Solvei'g's Song" by Grieg.
The discography is a bit crazy. Albums were deleted, then repackaged or renamed for Japanese reissues. One studio album per year for well over 50 years – and only a handful appears in Apple Music (or anywhere else). The confusion starts with Gone with the Wind which really is a quartet organised by Peterson and also out there as Toshiko's Piano. The sound balance isn't perfect and the arrangements hardly adventurous on United Notions..., but Toshiko is playing with big names such as Nat Adderley. A fascinating moment is when they introduce themselves, each in their own language.
There are quartet albums with first husband Charlie Mariano on alto sax. I don't like his sound much, but the albums are rated by most experts. With her second husband Lew Tabackin on tenor sax she had a successful big band. Nothing available now, but Strive for Jive and the frenzy of Let Freedom Swing show her class as a composer and arranger. The later solo albums such as Solo Live 2004 are too heavy on the nostalgia for my liking.
Compilations are never my first choice (you don't know who's playing and when), but The Amazing Toshiko Akiyoshi offers 33 tracks of bright, fresh music that will do nicely for now. If ony the classic albums would resurface...
Manny Albam (arranger, bandleader)
The Jazz Workshop (1955-56), Jazz Greats of Our Time (1956-58), Jazz New York (1958), The Drum Suite / Son of Drum Suite (1956)
These past weeks I had fun tracking down the top arrangers in jazz. Most made their name working for big bands, but also relished the chance to lead their own group and that's where you hear what made them stand out.
After working for the likes of Count Basie, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, Manny Albam finally got to take the lead himself. His first two outings are on Jazz Workshop. It sounds like standard '50s swing, but you don't have to be an expert to notice that even the hackneyed old songs sound fresher – a sign of Albam's magic at work. The second half of this album is Drum Suite, a big band bash for four drummers composed with Ernie Wilkins. It works well and never turns into percussion mayhem.
The cover of Jazz Greats claims it contains the complete recordings but somehow the playlist doesn't overlap with the Workshop combo – and is equally enjoyable. There's also the option of having the drum suite and its sequel on one album. The Jazz Greats playing with Albam on Jazz New York are made up of top players and the album is a slinky, smooth marvel. The best of Albam, supposedly, is on Blues is Everybody's Business, but I haven't been able to find it.
There's more to explore in a career of seven decades, depending on personal taste. Conductor Leonard Bernstein was so impressed with Albam's brilliant reworking of his West Side Story music that he asked him to write something for the New York Philharmonic. Albam went to study classical music and the result was "Concerto for Trombone and Strings". Maybe that, too, will turn up some day.
Dorothy Ashby (harp)
The Jazz Harpist (1957), In a Minor Groove (1958), Hip Harp (1958), Afro-Harping (1968)
It seems anyone who was influenced by Bud Powell, even in a small way, makes me sit up and listen. It happened again with Dorothy Ashby. She wasn't the first harpist in jazz, but she was the one who made it credible as a jazz instrument, playing it like a guitar and swinging with the best of them, perfectly paired with the breezy flute of Frank Wess. Sure, these albums are perfect for dinner with the folks or wedding receptions. But turn up the volume and you're listening to solid bop by a very original talent.
In the '60s she turned to a fusion style with albums such as Afro-Harping. One critic calls it her "best and most complete album" and its grooves are still heavily sampled. More than anything it reminds me of that decade's spy movie soundtracks – which is cool, but could be filed under lounge. She played on albums by the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and did the harp solo on the Stevie Wonder song "If It's Magic".
At the same time, Ashby moved on to "spiritual jazz", where she loses me. Those straight jazz albums, though, will always be among my top choices for unwinding time.
Franck Avitabile (piano)
In Tradition (1999), Right Time (2000), Bemsha Swing (2002)
The Frenchman's major-label debut, In Tradition, was produced by the great Michel Petrucciani, who also got him the contract. That was about as good an endorsement as a piano player could hope for and enough for me to give him a try. You'd expect an influence, but Avitabile plays a little sweeter than his mentor and doesn't hit the keys as hard.
Petrucciani didn't have much time to watch his protégé grow – he died before Right Time was recorded (his brother Louis plays bass on a few tracks). Chances are he would have loved the opener, a joyful waltz with subtle details that makes wonder why you don't listen to the album more often. That goes straight into a clever arrangement of "In Your Own Sweet Way". There is real intelligence in all the playing – also on Bemsha Swing, though here some tracks seem overly complicated.
Penguin Guide doesn't give Avitabile top marks and I must have been in a mood when I tried him first – the only comment I wrote in the book was "florid". Not quite true, though overthinking becomes a valid complaint with the first solo album, Just Play, where the PG writers feel he sounds "more mannered".
Like too many jazz pianists (for my liking), Avitabile is getting mellow with age. The newer albums lack the fire and punch I look for, but try them anyway. You might even prefer them.
Harry Babasin (bass, cello)
Jazz in Hollywood (1954), And the Jazz Pickers (1957), For Moderns Only (1957)
He never quite made the A-list, but the big Texan (nicknamed The Bear) left behind a batch of cheerful, playful albums that will never get old. He's also remembered as one of the first to mix in bossa nova with regular jazz. His solid, clear bass lines are as nimble as Fred Astaire's dancing feet and he also does impressive stuff on cello, where he was a pioneer along with Oscar Pettiford. Vibes player Terry Gibbs adds extra sparkle to the Jazz Pickers which features some of the leader's own tunes and a few classics.
There's more of the same on For Moderns only with Buddy Collette on flute adding an ideal extra layer to the sound. This combo made three albums – wish the others would resurface, too. Apple Music has an EP version with a measly six tracks of Babasin's entry in the Jazz in Hollywood series where he partners trombonist Bob Enevoldsen for a set of classic West Coast cool jazz.
I'm listening to Harry again on an overcast, cool and balmy summer afternoon (my favourite weather) after a nice swim, making a Valentine's supper. And it's perfect.
Sonny Clark (piano)
Dial 'S' for Sonny (1957), Sonny Clark Trio (1957), Cool Struttin' (1958), My Conception (1959), Leapin' and Lopin' (1961)
Drink and heroin destroyed him at a terribly young age, but somehow Clark managed six years' worth of hard bop classics as a leader and on memorable collaborations with the likes of John Coltrane and Art Farmer. Great examples of his team work are with guitarist Grant Green on The Complete Quartets With Sonny Clark and on the long-deleted The Buddy de Franco Quartet where he provides cheerful backing to the leader's bubbly clarinet solos on a set of golden oldies.
The magical ingredients in Clark's playing are his pumping rhythms and the sharp, crisp runs with the right hand. Even when leading, he put the group first and his team got a generous share of the limelight. The first track of Dial 'S' for Sonny sums up all his best assets and he's partnered by five top players. Between the bustling tracks are a few wonderfully gentle, dreamy ballads. The 1957 trio recording with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums is enjoyable though the piano sound is muted. Chambers and Jones also add spark to Cool Struttin', a blues workout rated as one of the key bebop albums.
Some say My Conception is overlooked because it follows Clark's best recording. Maybe, but it's quite brief and the sound is not that clear, either. Make sure you pick the Rudy Van Gelder remaster of Leapin' and Lopin', his last studio album, with four of his own tunes showing why he's also remembered as an excellent composer.
There is more to explore by a smart, nimble player who still deserves undivided attention.