The Tenacious Tokyo Jazz Trio

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

Jazz, the quintessential American art form, takes many shapes. Among the various styles are traditional and modern. UCI chancellor’s professor Kei Akagi performed the latter with his Tokyo Trio at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts on Friday night.

Akagi’s trio consists of bassist Shunya Wakai, drummer Tanaya Honda and of course Akagi himself on piano. Their set for the evening was comprised mainly of songs from their new album “Circlepoint.” Their music transcends the boundaries of structure and melody in order to create something teetering on the border of genius and insanity.

Silently, the trio took the stage. Their first selection, “Wade Park Morning,” is a tribute to Akagi’s hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. One by one, the musicians entered — playing seemingly without regard to each other. Then, however, a sense of unity among the disassociation crept into the ensemble.

The time, the melody and the mode of the song remained elusive, but the pure innovation of this song lies in the structure that persists despite its ambiguity. It is modern jazz in the purest sense: experimental, perplexing and just plain brilliant.

The next piece, “Children’s Song III,” is Akagi’s imagining of what children’s music would sound like in a different world. Space, the subtraction of sound, is utilized expertly by the combo. Akagi’s improvisation as the tension of the song rises was nothing short of astounding. His left hand outlined the music’s chord changes while his right hand raced up and down the keys, spelling out complicated jazz licks.

Akagi humbly rose from his piano to acknowledge the audience’s roaring applause and thanked his fellow musicians. He then introduced the next piece “Offsteps (For Sunship)” — a tribute to Akagi’s late friend, drummer Sonship Theus. Wakai immediately started off the song with an asymmetrical bass line. Then, with a subtle nod, the rest of the ensemble entered in perfect unison. Honda’s tap-dance around the drum set with brushes, as well as the more classic chord structure of the chart, was reminiscent of earlier forms of jazz.

The simplicity of the style made it easy to enjoy and get lost in the piece’s beauty. The emotion and depth of the piece laments Akagi’s long-gone friend, and pays tribute to him in the most flattering way any musician could hope for.

Sticking with the theme of originality and dynamic style, “Three Way Mirror” combined elements of jazz and waltz — a jazz waltz. The lighter nature and three-beat groove of the selection was a great contrast to the more aggressive and edgy nuances of the previous pieces.

Closing off the concert was “The Angle and the Glory II.” Back and forth, the drums and the double bass fought to be heard. That clash — which, under any other circumstances, would be a bad thing — is amazing.

Building on the rising action, Honda took a furious drum solo akin to Buddy Rich and Max Roach. After that display of skill and dexterity, he led the trio into a fast and hard swing. Akagi, capitalizing on the grooving tempo, took one last solo that demonstrated his standing as a premier jazz pianist. His unimaginable mastery of time, rhythm, improvisation and the piano was nothing short of outstanding.

The humble trio took a bow in acknowledgement of the adoring audience. “None of us could do what we do unless we had each other,” said the ever-humble Akagi.

In a lightning-fast hour, Kei Akagi and the Tokyo Trio delivered a fantastic performance and a lasting testament to the resilience of jazz.