The Mike Price experience


Mike Price toured Japan seven times with Toshiko Akiyoshi’s big band, and on the eighth, he stayed.

“I was blown away when I first came to Japan in 1976,” Price said over coffee at the Kichijoji jazz kissaten Scratch, “by the newness, of course, but also by the stronger taste for jazz here.”

Mike Price and his quintet

Price settled in Tokyo in 1989 and now leads his own big band, orchestra and quintet that play regularly in local clubs. The band and orchestra draw heavily on Price’s experiences with three of the most renowned large American modern jazz groups — those of Akiyoshi, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich.

“I had a nice, comfy spot rehearsing jazz ensembles at Berklee College of Music, when I was offered the first trumpet chair by Stan Kenton. I couldn’t turn it down,” he said, laughing.

“Kenton’s band was a fascinating place to extend yourself. The compositions of Dee Barton had a rich orchestral palette and an incredible rhythmic energy.”

Over his 40-year career, Kenton’s orchestras incorporated new, even controversial, elements into the traditional jazz-band format. Especially when working with the compositions of Barton, Kenton’s bands innovated with advanced harmonies, Latin rhythms and elements of classic music.

After Kenton, Price joined the Buddy Rich Band for two years. Rich was billed as “the world’s greatest drummer” and his group was one of the last standard big bands before rock gained dominance.

“Buddy Rich was the whole continuum of experience. You never knew what was coming, you just had to be ready. We’d be in 4/4 time, and in the middle of the song he’d just switch to 3/4. He’d go through bass players; they just couldn’t keep up, and one night, he fired two!” he said, shaking his head.

“There was such fire on the bandstand, though. He gave 120 percent and demanded everyone else to as well.”

This was in the late ’60s, “before marketing categories,” Price said. “We played opposite The Who at Fillmore West, and at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1970 with Led Zeppelin. I can’t remember who opened for who.”

After a stint of touring, Price needed a break and settled in Los Angeles, where he formed his own jazz-rock group. But in 1973, he went back on the road with the famed Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, one of the most important post-bop ensembles, noted for maintaining the intensity of its swing under fresh musical experiments.

“It was always interesting to work with Akiyoshi’s textures and concepts, including many Japanese aesthetic ideas,” he said. “She really had what I’d call a mature approach to the music.”

These influences have obviously helped shape his current projects. His big band performs modern jazz in the style of Kenton and Rich, while his orchestra focuses on Duke Ellington’s works. He has demonstrated particular interest in two of Ellington’s extended concept works — “Such Sweet Thunder,” based on the characters and stories of William Shakespeare, and “The Far East Suite,” based on Ellington’s and cocomposer Billy Strayhorn’s observations during a 1960s tour of the Middle East and Asia.

“I listened to ‘Such Sweet Thunder’ in high school and have just lived with it ever since,” Price said. “Many listeners only know Ellington’s older pieces, but in these two works the harmonic concepts, the turns and changes are always surprising, always interesting.”

Price has performed the works in their entirety, but for most shows he tends to play a selection from both works, allowing the audience to hear more of a variety of moods. He has also added a few more solos on tenor sax and piano, but on the whole he remains faithful to the original spirit.

Price’s big band, however, uses the modern jazz conceptions from Kenton’s and Rich’s bands, which allow for wide-open soloing.

“Conceptually, the two groups totally contrast. Barton’s writing for Kenton emphasizes the brass very differently,” explained Price. “The Rich and Kenton sound of the ’60s very much comes out of the zeitgeist of the times. We were affected by listening to Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, not to mention all the political and social changes going on,” he said. As a result, soloing gets a much more prominent place than with the Ellington works.

Soloing, however, really takes center stage with Price’s quintet. Formed in 1993, the quintet has gone through several personnel changes. Selections of tunes range from those of the recently deceased saxophonist Joe Henderson to works by the great trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. “With the quintet, I choose stuff I’ve been listening to, plus things I’ve been writing.”

After a couple hours of jazz, coffee and words, we stepped to the register of the jazz kissaten. He asked the waitresses in Japanese, “Do you like jazz?”

They did, having just chosen the great selection of jazz cuts we’d just been listening to.

“Do you play jazz?” he asked. They didn’t, but asked Price if he did. With an impish smile, he answered, “Yeah, I play a little trumpet.”