The Arty Semite

Reconciling Enemies: Jazz Sax and Flute Player Lew Tabackin

By Benjamin Ivry

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Dirk Stockmans

Veteran sax and flute player Lew Tabackin, a product of South Philadelphia, is one of the “Jazz Jews” discussed in Mike Gerber’s new book of that name. Tabackin performs in a quartet with his wife, the noted pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, and will appear from June 29 to July 3 at Birdland.

Though Tabackin did not come from a musical family, his parents paid for music lessons and his mother took him to Philadelphia’s grandiose, now-demolished Earle Theatre, a cinema where live bands like Benny Goodman’s would perform. As a youngster studying the flute and later saxophone, Tabackin, who turned 70 on March 26, was particularly thrilled by the sax playing of Al Cohn, a jazzman who enjoyed a cult following in Philadelphia at the time.

After serving in the army and playing with such great musicians as Elvin Jones and Roland Hanna, Tabackin was playing with Clark Terry’s ensemble in 1967 when a substitute appeared for the regular pianist, Don Friedman. She was Toshiko Akiyoshi, a fetching young Japanese woman who was by then already a masterful performer. Tabackin and Akiyoshi married in 1969 and relocated to the West Coast in the 1970s when, as a side effect of the Black Liberation movement, white jazz musicians were generally shunned.

The couple proceeded to form a big band on a shoestring budget which, improbably enough, endured for decades, until it was finally disbanded in 2003. Now the Tabackins play in more modest formations, and record for small labels like Japan’s T-Toc. They share a townhouse on the Upper West Side, where they enjoy hobbies like wine tasting (an honored guest for a private tasting was former New York Times wine maven Frank Prial).

Today, Tabackin is admired for the entirely different personalities he expresses on the two instruments which he plays; a rather disputatious, talkative sax, and a refined, spiritually adept flute. As Tabackin himself told All About Jazz: “It’s not easy to balance the two instruments because they are great enemies.”

Fans can hear Tabackin reconciling enemies at future performance dates after Birdland, at the New Mexico Jazz Festival on July 24; the Telluride Jazz Festival from August 5-8; and this fall back in Manhattan at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola from Nov 17-22 in tribute concerts for the legendary impresario George Wein of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Keep on reconciling, Lew!

Watch Tabackin play music by Duke Ellington in 2007:


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