The key ingredients to musical chemistry
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,” Tsuruga said. “But sometimes it feels so great. They wash my hair and give me a massage and I don’t have to do anything … It’s the same with musicians.”
The Japanese 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.”
“Both of them are geniuses,” says Tsuruga, who has shared the stage with many of jazz’s top artists. “When we play together, it’s chemistry. It’s just fun. My brain and my whole body are so full of heart. I feel full joy.”
It goes both ways
Hamilton and Dechter describe the trio’s dynamic in similar words.
“We have a lot of fun while playing together,” Dechter said.
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 Torme. 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 said, adding that Dechter finishes the package to a tee. “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.
“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 said. “It’s something I’m always aspiring to in my own playing — playing something incredibly complicated and making it look simple.”
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?” Tsuruga said. “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.”