The late, unique, Dr Geri Allen’s piano chair in the Power Trio was always going to be a hard one to fill after her death on June 27th. However, the Standard Bank Johannesburg Joy of Jazz handled the matter particularly clumsily, continuing to use her image and biography on the festival website for far too long (her photograph was still on the lineup page when I checked just now, at 10:34 am on 19/09: nearly three months later) rather than acknowledging the dilemma. I’m probably old-fashioned about respect for the dead, but I find that extremely distasteful.
However, Joy of Jazz has now announced the revised lineup, for a festival that runs from September 28-30 at the Sandton Convention Centre. Joining drummer Terri-Lyne Carrington and reedman David Murray on piano will be Osaka-born, Berlin-resident and eight-time winner of the German Record Critics Award, Aki Takase. Though a respected veteran of the European and US avant-garde jazz scenes, Takase is a new jazz visitor to South Africa. Her visit holds the promise of a fresh and daring keyboard presence, at an event where the 2017 lineup is dominated by names of unquestionable – but already known – quality. Allaboutjazz has noted Takase’s “uncommon knack for bringing something fresh to whatever music she cares to tackle.”
Also a leader and composer, Takase began playing piano aged 3, and studied classical music at the Toho Gakuen Academy. Her interest grew from classical to contemporary composed music and jazz; she confesses to being intrigued when a friend told her that “John Coltrane is like Beethoven”. Her early listening took in Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and more and eventually she thought: “Ah, maybe I can do something myself…”
In 1972, she moved to New York, working with, among others, Lester Bowie, John Zorn and Dave Liebman; nine years later she made her first appearance in Europe at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Audiences instantly appreciated her distinctive keyboard approach. She settled in Germany in 1987 and since then, often in company with husband and musical collaborator pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, she has been an admired and influential presence on the European free jazz scene. See the two playing Mingus at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uALFIaa4v60
“In the beginning,” Takase told an interviewer (https://soundcloud.com/underyourskin/aki-takase-interview-live ), “I was just playing what I wanted (…) Later, I knew there were some rules.”
Takase is a longtime collaborator with Murray: they first worked together on the album Blue Monk (Enja) in 1983. She has released more than 40 albums as leader, among them outings exploring the work of composers such as Duke Ellington, W.C. Handy, and Ornette Coleman. But it is Thelonious Monk whom she acknowledges as her most enduring piano hero: “He is a genius, timeless…nobody delights me so much.”
Takase shares Monk’s gift for presenting audiences with the unexpected, and it’s not entirely clear why the Joy of Jazz press release chose to preview her work as “piano serenading”: a somewhat misleading label for a powerful and very physical presence at the piano, where jagged sounds from fists and flat hands crashed on to the keys can be juxtaposed with delicate, finely crafted melody. The UK Guardian’s John Fordham notes “some very attractive virtues: a fearless relish for treading close to the edge, formidable technique, deep jazz knowledge, a shrewd sense of how to balance abstract improv and song structure, as well as a sense of humour.” (http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/06/aki-takase-my-ellington-review )
Takase’s most recent work with Murray is the album Cherry-Sakura (https://intaktrec.bandcamp.com/album/cherry-sakura ), and much material is available online to sample the mood of their work together, for example the preview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flTuINIuhuw and the live performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOp4dEqTPf4 . We know from Grammy-winner Carrington’s many previous outings how she, too, can “tread close to the edge” in defiant rhythmic power, and next weekend’s performance is likely to offer new insights into and textures for the music of Perfection. It will absolutely not sound the same as the recording, but it will share sophisticated ears, daring ideas and instrumental mastery. That’s the most fitting way to pay tribute to the memory of Allen.