Snazzy and Jazzy: Akagi Concert

Kei Akagi, along with colleagues Darek Oles and Jason Harnell, stepped up to the Steinway perched on stage in Winfred Smith next to a wooden string bass turned on its side and an emerald drum set illuminated by the spotlight. Oles waltzed over to the wooden bass, picked it up to put it in its upright position, and turned the pegs on the side over slightly to check the tuning. Harnell took his place at his vibrant drum set and toyed around with his brushes and sticks that would soon be moving in a rhythmic frenzy for the duration of the evening.

Despite the description in the brochure that advertised the performance as “a night of old meets new jazz,” Akagi disclaimed that this would be a night consisting entirely of new jazz.  The first piece the trio performed was Akagi’s original composition from a few years back. It started with a soft, eloquent piano, the hum of the bass and the light tapping of the symbol before getting into undeniable groove.

The second piece was “The Sorcerer,” composed by Herbie Hancock, that began on what sort of sounded like an amped-up pentatonic scale as it transitioned into a full swing of intricate melodies. The later pieces were either recently written with working titles or seemed to spin off of an improvised scale or warm up. These three well-versed jazz musicians lived up to their motto of being “improvisers … everything we play is new.”

There was a palpable passion behind each of the three musicians performing on stage. Akagi’s nimble fingers were showcased in his incredibly improvised melodies that left his hands in a blur while the music remained completely fluid and smooth. In the pieces that called for a slower, more emotional piano with maybe a slight minor progression, Akagi would lean back and look toward the ceiling, clearly thinking of the intent behind the music. In the more upbeat numbers, his staccato solos brought him out of his seat to rapidly yet gracefully dabble throughout all 88 keys.

During bass solos, Oles would have his eyes closed, able to feel with his finger-pads exactly where they needed to be on the neck of his fretless bass, always hitting each note with just the right amount of vibrato. Harnell gave his drum solos enough dimensions to last just as long as, if not longer than, his fellow performers’ solos. With squinting eyes and a tight mouth, Harnell moved his arms feverishly around in order to translate the elaborate rhythm going through his head onto the drums in front of him.

Even with the unequivocal boldness of each individual performer, the three musicians were constantly listening to each other, making sure that none of the pieces were overwhelmed by one instrument and that the dynamics were always on point. Together, they would seamlessly transition from one piece to the next with an ease that comes with their combined decades of experience.

Akagi has been putting together this concert every year for 14 years, saying that “every year [I] never know who [my] friends are going to be.” This year’s collaboration with Oles and Harnell exposed the audience to some of the brightest talent amongst UCI’s Jazz Department’s faculty. Kei Akagi and Friends proved to be a night of incredible performances, a little comedic relief from Akagi’s occasional commentary and All. That. Jazz.