Midori Ono, straight outta Osaka

Hammond B-3 organist Midori Ono performs at Wednesday at the California Jazz Conservatory with drummer Akira Tana, saxophonist Lyle Link, and guitar great Calvin Keys.

New Orleans, Chicago, Osaka, New York and Kansas City: You might think one of these cities doesn’t belong in a list of historic jazz hotbeds, but Japan’s second largest metropolis boasts a vital scene that’s produced some of the jazz-loving nation’s finest improvisers. San Jose-born drummer Akira Tana got turned on to Osaka’s deep pool of jazz talent back in 2001 when he met Hammond B-3 organist Atsuko Hashimoto at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. She invited him to sit in whenever he came through Osaka, and he’s been mining the scene ever since, drawing particularly on the city’s the strange fluorescence of women B-3 players.

Tana opens up a week of gigs with Osaka-based B-3 expert Midori Ono at the California Jazz Conservatory on Wednesday in a quartet with saxophonist Lyle Link and guitar great Calvin Keys. The concert is part of Jazz In the Neighborhood’s Wednesday series in the CJC’s new Fiddler Annex. Ono also leads a trio session at Saratoga’s Café Pink House with Tana and guitarist Jeff Massanari on April 16. In between those dates she plays a series of gigs with Tana’s Secret Agent Band, including April 13 at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano and April 14 at Stanford’s Bing Studio.

“I don’t know how to explain the Osaka thing,” says Tana, whose father Daisho Tana led the Berkeley Buddhist Temple at 2121 Channing Way in the 1930s. “Atsuko Hashimoto is the matriarch. Akiko Tsuruga is also fantastic, though she lives in New York now, and there are some great young players coming up behind Midori. It’s like in Philadelphia with Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. There’s something culturally that inspires different people.”

Raised in Palo Alto, Tana came of age on the Boston scene in the early 1970s and went on to spend two decades in New York City as a first-call cat, touring and recording with a daunting roster of jazz legends, including saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, James Moody, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson and Sonny Stitt.


He co-led an excellent combo with bassist Rufus Reid, TanaReid, that served as an essential proving ground for a generation of young players. During the course of the 90s 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.

Since moving back to the Bay Area in 1999, Tana has continued to work as a sideman, while also leading several singular projects. The Secret Agent Band evolved out of his 2002 album of film themes Secret Agent Men, a concept he developed further on 2011’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (both on Sons of Sound), which explores songs from James Bond films like “Nobody Does It Better,” “Live and Let Die” and “Gold Finger” set to an enticing array of rhythms. For the Bay Area shows, the licensed-to-kill quintet also features Massanari, Nashville Annie Sellick, and saxophonist James Mahone.

Ono has played the music before, noting during a recent Skype conversation from her home in Osaka that “the songs are very difficult for me, very different style from the style I’m used to playing. But it’s very interesting music.”

Ono has performed in the Bay Area several times, including one of Pete Fallico’s Organ Blowout concerts at the 2013 Stanford Jazz Festival with Chester Thompson and Tony Monaco. She was a standout player as a teenager, winning top honors in the Japan Hammond Organ Competition, Senior Division. As part of her prize, she won a trip to Los Angeles, a fateful journey that changed the course of her life.

“It was the first time to go to the US for me,” she recalled. The Hammond company took me to NAMM show,” a huge trade show for the National Association of Music Merchants,  “and there was a Hammond organ booth with many organ players there. That was the first time to I got to see the American jazz organ style. I loved the improvising and the groove. The sound was different from the style I used to play. It was amazing for me.”

Over the years she’s played with B-3 masters like Dr. Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff when they toured Japan. For the Berkeley and Saratoga gigs, Ono is bringing some of her original arrangements of traditional Japanese songs. It’s a similar concept to Tana’s gorgeous Otonowa band, which released an eponymous album in 2013 to raise funds for victims of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, and has continued to perform and raise relief funds in the US and Japan. With Ono, Tana continues to build bridges between the two nations.