Former pianist for Miles Davis and UC Irvine Chancellor’s professor of music Kei Akagi treated jazz fans Friday night to an evening of wonderful music. Akagi, along with colleagues Bobby Rodriguez and Darek Oles on trumpet and bass, respectively, brought down the house at Winifred Smith Hall.
There exists a select breed of musicians who are so incredibly gifted and good at what they do that it becomes difficult for the listener to distinguish the player from the instrument. When this happens, it is a very special relationship indeed. From the moment his hands hit those ivory keys, it is clear that Akagi belongs to this elite class. Few words come close to describing Akagi’s musical ability. ‘Jaw-dropping’ is one. ‘Virtuosic’ may be another.
A solo Akagi tore John Coltrane’s ‘Twenty-Six Two’ wide open to kick off the night. Akagi moved across the keys with the speed and agility of a hummingbird, his left hand oftentimes breaking with his right, swooping in from the low keys to hit a high note, and then flying back again. He rarely remained seated, rising from the piano bench and swiveling his hips in time to the music. On several occasions throughout his performance, and the evening as a whole, the audience was not sure if Akagi was playing the piano, or the piano was playing him. Anyone in the audience that night would agree that this opening piece was a standout performance of the night, and an absolutely astonishing display of musicianship.
Playing alongside Akagi was trumpet and flugelhorn player Rodriguez. A charismatic performer oozing with personality, Rodriguez was a delight to watch. His athletic stance onstage, his feet spread far apart and his knees bent, complemented his acrobatic horn playing. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes blistering, but always flawless, Rodriguez made a glorious sound, especially on his composition ‘You’re Mine,’ a highlight of the concert’s second half. The piece, penned for a theatrical production described by Rodriguez as a Latinized version of the opera ‘Carmen,’ showcased Rodriguez playing a very sensual flugelhorn, an instrument akin to the trumpet, garnering him one of the most uproarious applauses of the night.
Holding down the beat Friday night was bassist Oles. Somewhat of a reserved performer, Oles provided the perfect foil to the more jovial Rodriguez. Though Oles had quite a few excellent solos throughout the night, his performance of an original composition entitled ‘Prayer’ right after the intermission was arguably his finest moment.
His exceptionally fluid style and melodic phrasing is a testament to why Oles is one of the most sought-after bassists on the West Coast. Akagi responded to the contemplative nature of Oles’ piece with a haunting piano solo, another one of the many crowd-pleasing performances of the night.
Aside from the strengths exhibited by each player individually, the most striking element of Friday night’s performance was the natural chemistry of the group. Akagi explained to the audience early in the show that he, Rodriguez and Oles do not often have the opportunity to play together. The trio’s ability to communicate with each other onstage and the sheer power of their voices combined, however, would suggest that these musicians have been playing together for many years. The fact that Friday night’s concert was such a rare outing for the three of them made the show even more magical.