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The key ingredients to musical chemistry

Take it from a world-class organist, drummer and guitarist … the jazz miracle doesn’t happen every day

Akiko Tsuruga likens the feeling of perfect musical chemistry to a heavenly experience in the beauty salon.

“Sometimes the person cutting my hair is so nervous. They’ve never cut Asian hair and they don’t know what to do and it makes me nervous. But sometimes it feels so great. They wash my hair and give me a massage and I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to worry about anything. I feel like I’m in heaven. It’s the same with musicians.”

The Japanese B3 organ player experiences this salon-style luxury every time she takes the stage with drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Graham Dechter, with whom she recorded the live album, 2017’s So Cute, So Bad, which was streamed from New York’s Lincoln Center.

“Both of them are geniuses,” says Tsuruga, who has shared the stage with many of jazz’s top international artists and was named 2017 Best Jazz Organ by Hot House Magazine. “Every time I play with them or I listen to them playing, I feel like God gave them special talent. I respect them so much. Their rhythm is so driving. When we play together, it’s chemistry. It’s just fun. My brain, my whole body are so full of heart. I feel full joy.”

Hamilton and Dechter describe the trio’s dynamic in similar words.

“We have A LOT of fun while playing together,” Dechter says. “Jeff Hamilton talks about musicians who are ‘serious about what they do, but don’t take themselves too seriously.’ Being that all of us come from that mindset, it definitely creates a serious yet joyful vibe.”

Widely considered one of the greatest jazz drummers of the modern age, Hamilton mentored Dechter and has performed or recorded with some of the biggest names in music, from Ella Fitzgerald to Diana Krall, Barbara Streisand to Mel Tormé. But sometimes when a combo clicks, it truly locks. Such was the case between Hamilton and Tsuruga, whom were first brought together by Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone.

Tsuruga has a clear recollection of Stone’s phone call after the first time he saw her perform many years ago.

“He called me and said, ‘I have a really good drummer for you.’ I asked him who and he said Jeff Hamilton. I said, ‘wow.’” Tsuruga recalls.

Within the first seconds of their first performance together at the Vail Jazz Festival, the lock was sealed.

“In the first eight measures, Akiko and I looked at each other. We were both thinking, ‘uh oh … we have something really special here,’” Hamilton says, adding that Dechter finishes the package to a T. “I think Graham is one of the greatest improvisers going today. I’ve played with great guitarists in my day and have a pretty high standard. I knew he’d be the perfect fit.”

The joy the three find together is obvious when they perform, each one wearing an ear-to-ear smile and a joy so thick it forms a palpable aura.

“I believe that it’s a combination of getting along together both on and off the bandstand. Jeff, Akiko and I come from very similar places in terms of how we hear and feel music but we also share many common traits outside of music – food, wine, humor …You can put three great musicians together but if they don’t jive well as people, it’s very difficult for the music to reach that next level,” Dechter says, agreeing with Tsuruga that his bandmates’ talent appears effortless.

“Jeff and Akiko both play instruments that require so much coordination and independence, both physically and mentally, yet they make it look so easy,” he says. “It’s something I’m always aspiring to in my own playing – playing something incredibly complicated and making it look simple.”

A skillful ear and a solid background of sacrifice are also key ingredients to amazing musical chemistry, according to Hamilton.

“Hearing the music the same so you have that common language makes it easier to play together,” the drummer says. “The determination and the sacrifice from a young age are a big part of it … not being able to play baseball when you’re 10 years old because you have to practice, in some cases relationships throughout your life, in the jazz world … there are sacrifices you have to make to do it properly.”

Also, these artists certainly don’t forget that the winning mix can’t be made without a generous dash or three of love.

“I have been thinking, what is chemistry? I have been living in New York and there are so many good musicians here, so many great musicians, but nobody like Jeff and Graham. They are so loveable. They have so much love,” Tsuruga says.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square Aug. 23: Akiko/Hamilton/Dechter

Don’t miss the magical musical force that is Akiko Tsuruga, Jeff Hamilton and Graham Dechter. The trio closes out the 2018 Vail Jazz @ Vail Square season at 6 p.m. Aug. 23 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seating and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. 

GET TICKETS HERE.

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Joy of Discovering Akiko

One of the great joys of my life has been “discovering” jazz musicians. As a listener, I find myself simultaneously moving in two directions – backward in time, discovering many of the jazz greats that are no longer with us, as well as forward in time, as I try to stay current by hearing all the jazz that is out there today. With the digitization of music, the rise of the artist self-produced recording, and YouTube, it is an impossible task to digest all that exists, but it is fun trying.

At the heart of my listening is something that I think is fundamental to many of us, without reference to music: the pure joy of discovering something new. Foodies are willing to sample endless offerings of extra virgin olive oil to find the perfect one and many shoppers enjoy scouring garage sales and second-hand stores looking for that perfect treasure. All are on a quest and discovery is at the heart of it.

As the Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, I have the perfect job, at least for me. I am constantly on a musical expedition to discover jazz musicians that I can bring to Vail to perform at one of our 85 jazz performances each year. So how do I do my job? Between Spotify and the streaming of jazz radio stations, there is an endless source of content that can easily be heard. In addition, relationships play a big role in learning about new players. Whether it is by recommendations from other musicians I respect, or the community of jazz booking agents who have a track record for representing up and comers, referrals play a big part in learning about new talent. Jazz magazines, jazz blogs and reviews of performances are also fertile ground for discoveries. Another source of information are the artists’ websites that abound, and the “virtual jazz club” of YouTube. These tools have made the job of checking out musicians so much easier, but there is no substitute for seeing a live performance. I want to share with you one story of how seeing a live performance put in motion forces that I believe were meant to be.

Howard Stone

In 2011, I learned that there was a great Hammond B-3 organ player from Japan – Akiko Tsuruga, living in New York City – and the buzz was that she was the “real deal.” Women jazz organists are not that common, although one of the greatest was Shirley Scott. I made a mental note to check out Akiko the next time I was in NYC and the following year I had the opportunity to see/hear Akiko perform. It was clear that night that she was, in fact, the “real deal.” As she stepped off the bandstand, I approached her, introduced myself and booked her to come to the Vail Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend 2013, where she would perform with other musicians that I would select. This was part of my hidden agenda, since I wanted her to play with drummer Jeff Hamilton, a Vail Jazz Festival favorite and one of the top drummers in jazz. Akiko and Jeff had never met, but when I heard her play in NYC, I knew that she and Jeff were kindred musical spirits and I was confident that the results would be magical. They were. Akiko and Jeff played in a “jam” session where the music was completely improvised. As the 50-minute set unfolded, the two of them connected in a way that was miraculous. It was as if they had had been bandmates for years. I was grinning from ear-to-ear when the set was over.

If the story ended here, it would speak to the ability of two extraordinarily talented jazz musicians to make music without ever having the opportunity to rehearse together. That, in itself, is one of the most compelling aspects of jazz. How can strangers make such great music? That question has captivated me all these years and I still don’t have an answer. However, the story doesn’t end here. Because of the opportunity to play together in Vail, Akiko and Jeff agreed that they would try to work together in the future. Keep in mind that Jeff lives in Southern California, is the leader of the Jeff Hamilton Trio, co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and a very busy musician and of course, Akiko lives in NY with a very busy performance schedule as well.

But the vow to work together was not just idle conversation and Akiko and Jeff began to play together when their busy schedules allowed. In January 2017 they recorded a live album, “So Cute, So Bad,” named after Akiko’s cat. The album was extremely well received and confirmed they were meant to play together and they now regularly do so. At 6 p.m. Aug. 23, Akiko and Jeff are returning to Vail to perform in the Jazz Tent next to the Arrabelle Hotel in Lionshead. Joining them will be guitarist Graham Dechter, the third member of the band, Akiko/Hamilton/Dechter. Again, if the story ended here, it would be a fitting climax to a musical encounter that began in Vail five years earlier. However, I am pleased to report that the next day following their performance in Vail, the trio will record their second album in the Denver studios of Vail Jazz’s sound engineers, Mighty Fine Productions. As a side note, MFP has been with Vail Jazz for over two decades and its team provided the sound for Akiko and Jeff when they first played together in Vail in 2013. What goes around, comes around!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.