Akira Tana’s affinity for James Bond makes perfect sense when you think about it. A suave and sophisticated drummer with a killer sense of time, Tana quietly infiltrated the Bay Area after some two decades in New York City playing with the baddest cats on the scene. He’s a supremely musical drummer whose persuasive sense of swing leaves a band stirred but not shaken.
After an illustrious career as a first-call accompanist, the San Jose-born, Palo Alto-raised Tana has gradually taken to spearheading his own high concept projects. His 2011 album “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (Sons of Sound) explores title themes from James Bond films, covering four decades of pop cultural artifacts from the era of Mad Men to the twilight of the Clinton Administration. With songs like “Nobody Does It Better,” “Live and Let Die” and “Gold Finger” set to an enticing array of rhythms, James Bond has never sounded so hip.
“It’s really in the jazz tradition to take pop songs and movie music and reimagine them,” says Tana, 60, who presents the Secret Agents at the Freight on Thursday. “Jazz players are constantly looking for new material to interpret.”
The band features a fascinating cast of operatives, such as Japanese Hammond B3 organist Akiko Tsuruga, who’s been making a name for herself in New York City through her work with octogenarian bop-and-blues alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Tana draws mostly on a reliable cast of Bay Area players like reed master Melecio Magdaluyo, guitarist Jeff Buenz, and bassist Gary Brown, all-purpose sidemen well versed in Latin American grooves. Percussionist Kenneth Nash, who rounds out the ensemble, has been a true secret agent in recent years. A pioneering world jazz drummer with a vast range of credits, he’s been largely absent from Bay Area stages since he started devoting most of his time to production in his Oakland studio.
“Kenneth is a really free spirit when he plays,” Tana says. “He brings a certain spark to the music. I’ve been playing with Melecio and Jeff and Gary in a lot of different contexts and knew they’d be able to dig into these arrangements. There’s some samba and some reggae. People usually think of Melecio in Latin jazz contexts, like his work with John Santos, but he can tear it up playing straight ahead too.”
The only Agent featured on the album who’s also at the Freight is Nashville jazz vocalist Annie Sellick. Music City isn’t usually thought of as an important center for jazz, but it boasts a highly skilled if somewhat subterranean scene. Sellick is Nashville’s leading jazz singer. She’s been most visible outside of Tennessee touring with fiddler Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing combo.
“She’s a jazz singer, but you can hear all these pop and country influences,” Tana says. “She’s got a certain vibe that’s really attractive and sophisticated.”
Growing up in Palo Alto, Tana played in a rock band as a teenager, and was exposed to jazz mostly through his older brother. His father, Daisho Tana, led various Buddhist congregations around the Bay Area (including the Berkeley Buddhist Temple at 2121 Channing Way in the 1930s) and his mother played koto and piano. Tana became a devoted jazz convert after acquiring a used copy of Miles Davis’s classic 1966 album “Miles Smiles” (Columbia).
While majoring in East Asian Studies at Harvard University he was still deeply involved with music. Through his friendship with budding jazz drum star Billy Hart, Tana had a chance to sit in with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in the early 70s, and studied with Berklee College professor Alan Dawson, a superlative drummer whose students included Tony Williams and Clifford Jarvis. After Harvard, Tana decided to pursue music full time at New England Conservatory. While he feels the opportunity to play chamber music was invaluable, Tana didn’t hesitate for long when Sonny Rollins offered him a touring gig, though it meant flunking an orchestra class.
The NEC degree opened up numerous doors, such as performing under the baton of Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller at Tangelwood. He’s also played in Broadway pit orchestras, and accompanied French chanson star Charles Aznavour. Other extracurricular gigs with heavyweight jazz artists like Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Helen Humes during his eight years in Boston helped pave the way for his move to New York in 1979.
After working widely as a freelancer, he got his first taste of bandleading with TanaReid, a band he founded with Sacramento-raised bassist Rufus Reid. During the course of the 1990s the group toured internationally, released six CDs and helped boost the careers of brilliant young improvisers like tenor saxophonists Mark Turner and Ralph Moore and pianist Rob Schneiderman (a former Berkeley resident and Cal mathematics PhD). He credits veteran bassist Bob Cranshaw, who’s anchored Sonny Rollins’s band for more than four decades, with instilling an ethic of embracing every musical challenge.
“Bob told me, ‘Your heart might be in jazz, but if someone calls you to play in a different setting, you should be open to it. Not only will it help you keep working, it will broaden your concept of playing,’” Tana says. “I never forgot that.”
For details of Tana’s Berkeley show, visit the Freight & Salvage.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.