Kei Akagi

by Michael Pronko

Kei Akagi’s newly released CD, “Palette,” on the Videoarts Music label, uses the often overdone piano trio format for powerful explorations. While many pianists range across styles because they have no sound of their own, Akagi plays with a consistent voice that is strong enough to express itself in a variety of textures.

Akagi’s piano playing creates many different invigorating sounds: explosive on his original “Needle Play”; breakneck on John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird”; reflective on his “Autumns Past”; and straight-out sad on the solo “Here’s to Life.”

As a sideman to Miles Davis and Stanley Turrentine, among others, Akagi has no shortage of solid experience. Though he has lived in the States for many years, and played on countless CDs, for this work he put together two trios from the cream of Tokyo’s jazz scene. Tomokazu Sugimoto on bass and Tamaya Honda on drums have a more straight-ahead drive, while bassist Nobuyoshi Ino and Hiroshi Murakami on drums establish a slower tempo for the more emotive pieces.

The excellent sax playing of Kosuke Mine on four tunes creates an especially strong interaction beyond the trio format. Akagi and Mine’s duet on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” makes for one of the most haunting versions of the tune in years.

While Akagi is always the central focus, he keeps a highly responsive flow with the combos that makes each tune spring to life. Akagi’s playing moves back and forth across the line from soothing musicality to confrontational modality with an awareness and ease that comfortably blurs the distinction.

His sound is distinctly modern, but he never dips into sharp attacks without good reason. After bursts of percussive playing, he pulls back into delicate resolutions and moving, lyrical articulations. The result is a seamlessness that is satisfyingly listenable without losing any complexity. Akagi’s deep sense of improvisational direction, which works songs into intriguing new patterns, marks him as one of the most experienced and important piano players around.