Jazz pianist Kei Akagi clearly relishes the dual nature of the human mind. This is no surprise coming from someone who has divided his time between the United States and Japan, his college studies between philosophy and music, his musical training between classical and jazz, his jazz playing between electric and acoustic, and his working life between teaching jazz at university by day and performing in jazz clubs at night. These bifurcating experiences have influenced his view of jazz as “heterogeneous” and “inherently unstable.”
Akagi’s trajectory — from church music in Cleveland to touring with Airto Moreiro, Joe Farrell, Stanley Turrentine and Miles Davis, to setting up a jazz program at the University of California at Irvine — has been a fascinating one. His current trio, touring Japan this summer, reflects his experience with vigor, eloquence and a startlingly open approach. Their just-released CD, “A Hint of You,” thrives on the dynamics of Akagi’s brash, but buoyant piano, Tomokazu Sugimoto’s muscular yet lyrical bass, and Tamaya Honda’s lean, complex drumming (“Honda thinks like an orchestra,” Akagi noted). He took time two weeks ago before a mid-tour gig at Aoyama’s Body and Soul to talk about his new trio, jazz and life. The tour continues through September.
When did you get started with jazz?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. We were the only non-black family for miles around, and we went to a black church, so I was surrounded by African-American music. I was taking classical piano lessons and my high-school teacher told me that to have an appreciation of 20th century music, you have to have an understanding of jazz. I’m forever indebted to that teacher. I went to the record store, closed my eyes, pulled out a record from the jazz bin, and it was a Bud Powell piano trio. When I heard that, I thought, for the first time, here’s the music I’ve been looking for.
After college, where you played in the jazz circle at International Christian University here in Tokyo, you went back to the States?
I went back to grad school in philosophy. A couple of months after my getting there, I played with Blue Mitchell. All these famous musicians coming up from L.A. started calling me when they came to town. After two years of trying to balance life as a graduate student in the philosophy department while playing in jazz clubs at night, it just got to be too much. I finally asked myself, what am I doing with my life? So, I called up my professor in the morning, and told him that I knew I was supposed to be giving a presentation that day, but I decided I was going to quit school and become a jazz musician. There was dead silence, and then this incredulous voice said, “You mean starting today?” I said, “Yes, starting today.” He said, “Well, good luck.”
So, you played around town there?
Right, and within about two years, I got the gig with Airto Moreira. I was with him for seven years. That was incredible. The Brazilian aspect aside, what I really learned was what it means to be a musician. Airto has no technical knowledge of the music, but he knows what it is. His leadership didn’t come to me as musical. It was more a question of the feeling and the integrity of the execution. He wouldn’t say, play this intro here or play this chord there. He’d say, play something more tasteful, or play something more graceful, or play something ugly here, things that really have to do with the emotional impact. So, in the course of trying to interpret those remarks, I had to dig deep inside myself and find out what was there.
What was it like playing with Miles Davis?
In Miles’ band, there were so many different levels. The first thing, of course, was the musical level — why does the music work in a certain way, why does the music not work in a certain way. He really made you think of connections in very different ways, for example, the use of absolute dead silence, and how to integrate it, and the feeling that if your total number of ideas is 100 percent, then you should play 50 or 60 percent of that. The idea that it’s always better to hint at an idea or a mood rather than to play it out fully. It’s musical insinuation rather than presentation. These were things that I hadn’t thought of before.
When Miles got the key to the city of France, the mayor described him as the Picasso of jazz. It’s that kind of abstractionism.
How did he get other people to do it, too, though?
That’s where Miles is a genius. He never said a whole lot, but after a while you found yourself playing his music anyway. You find yourself reacting like he would. Even though he could be hardnosed, Miles’ leadership was not to treat his sidemen like sidemen. He managed to get his musicians to be part of an organism without them realizing it, independent pieces heading toward a goal. With Miles I always knew exactly what to do. Really it was an issue of clarity, you just knew what to do.
How do you work with Honda and Tsugimoto?
We just get together and play. I brought a couple of new tunes with me this tour and it’s taken four or five times to really understand them. A lot of times I don’t understand what I wrote. I don’t understand what mood it’s in or what the tune’s supposed to be about. I had complete faith in my musicians. I knew that whatever happened in the studio, it would be good and it would be musical. It’s music that’s a cooperative effort and the result of a consensus of a high sort, with no sense of compromise. The way we work together is everybody’s free to put in their own ideas and their own concepts at whatever moment. We all know that we can react to each other. The overall parameters are very, very wide, wider than any band I’ve ever had.
How do you balance your playing and your teaching? What are you teaching?
I’m teaching jazz history, theory, composition and ensemble. We have a jazz major in the music program at UC Irvine. So, now you can get a bachelor’s in jazz performance, and a master’s.
Do you see the incorporation of jazz into academia as a positive thing?
If that leads to a wider acceptance of jazz as a legitimate art form, it is a very good thing. If it’s possible to give students a systematic exposure, so they can learn in four years what it would have taken them 15 years to learn, then they have a longer life to be creative. The danger is anytime you classicize an art, what you’re doing is setting up a canon. You have a set repertoire, a set method, and a set system of values. That becomes the orthodoxy. The issue is whether the orthodoxy squelches creativity in ways that it need not have been squelched. Jazz has always been a unique combination of the European emphasis on training and the African emphasis on the social functionality of music.
The danger comes when jazz stops looking outside itself for influence in growing. Classical music ended up doing that. Jazz has always been omnivorous. The thing for me is that jazz is inherently unstable. The very instability of jazz as an art form gives it its appeal, and at the same time makes it important. I don’t want jazz to lose that, but I don’t think it will.
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