Akira Tana Spies on the 007 Songbook


From Sean Connery’s 007 to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, the popular image of the secret agent is built on a fundamental contradiction. The job requires anonymity and the ability to travel incognito, while the men hired to play these memorable roles on screen are by nature of their beauty and charisma eminently conspicuous.

In somewhat the same way, drummer Akira Tana likes to pose as a mild-mannered accompanist, but he’s spent much of the past 25 years leading a series of thrilling ensembles. The Palo Alto-raised trap master presents his latest project tonight for Los Gatos’ Jazz on the Plazz.

“I’m not the kind of drummer you would think of as being a real stylist,” says Tana, 60, from his home in Belmont. “I don’t dream of putting myself in the same breath as guys like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. Their styles are so strong, and they’re innovators. I’ve spent my whole career being supportive in different situations.”

It’s true that Tana has thrived as a first-call sideman. Since he graduated from New England Conservatory in the early 1970s he’s performed and recorded with an array of jazz legends, including saxophonists Sonny Rollins, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Zoot Sims and Sonny Stitt. But he’s also distinguished himself as a savvy bandleader and canny talent scout starting with TanaReid, the stellar band he co-led led through the 1990s with bass virtuoso Rufus Reid.

Tana’s latest album is the high-concept Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Sons of Sound), a session exploring title themes from James Bond films, covering songs like “Nobody Does It Better,” “Live and Let Die” and “Gold Finger” set to an enticing array of rhythms.

The band, called Secret Agent Men, 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 largely been absent from Bay Area stages since he started devoting most of his time to production in his Oakland studio.

The only musician featured on the album who’s also on the upcoming gigs is Nashville jazz vocalist Annie Sellick. She’s been most visible outside of Tennessee touring with fiddler Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing combo. But her most recent album, 2010’s Street of Dreams, pairs her with unimpeachably swinging trios led by pianist Gerald Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

“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.”

Like in many jazz projects, the real secret agent behind Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the arranger, pianist Larry Dunlap. He took the assignment seriously, immersing himself in the 007 filmography, listening closely to the incidental music for ideas he could incorporate into his arrangements.

“I’m really into Brazilian music so there’s some of that in there, and it gets a little bluesy sometimes,” says Dunlap, whose latest album Um Renovo Musical explores the songs of the great San Francisco-based Cape Verdean composer Amandio Cabral. “I just tried to keep it interesting, tried to get a feeling of movement since the movies are full of action sequences.”

Tana traces the Bond concept back to an album he recorded in Japan in the early 1990s, Secret Agent Men, featuring Hammond B3 legend Dr. Lonnie Smith. Another high-concept album, the session focuses on TV and film themes like “Mission Impossible,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Charade” set to insistently funky grooves. An arrangement of “From Russia With Love” planted the seed for the Bond project, which was spearheaded by Sons of Sound, the New York City label that licensed Secret Agent Men for U.S. release in 2002.

“It’s really in the jazz tradition to take pop songs and movie music and reimagine them,” Tana says. “I remember an album of Benny Golson playing film themes, and Sonny Rollins playing ‘Alfie.’ Jazz players are constantly looking for new material to interpret.” ~ By Andrew Gilbert

Akira Tana
Wednesday (Aug. 1); Free
Los Gatos Town Plaza

Matt Crawford is the Director of Digital Media for Metro Newspapers. Follow him @Metro_Matt.

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