Aside from her soulful, sultry voice and unique phrasing, the most salient feature of Pure Imagination, song stylist Akiko’s Aoki’s long awaited return to recording, is her passion for and devotion to family.
It’s delightful hearing the singer – who released her debut album Alfie back in 1998 – charming her way through deft arrangements of classics like “Almost Like Being in Love,” a rare, funk-swing vocal version of Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar,” eloquent renditions of “Two For The Road” and “Pure Imagination,” yet the true emotional core of the 13 track collection are the three duets featuring Aoki and her equally talented daughter Mari.
While a spritely skip through Van Morrison’s “Moondance” features their gorgeous harmonies, a soulful, gentle hearted spin on “Just the Two of Us” is a bit more of a showcase for Mari, with her mom joining for an extended wordless vocal improv later in the tune. Their other collaboration, the poignant closing ballad “Smile” is especially meaningful, conveying the timeless message in light of the loss of Aoki’s husband (and Mari’s dad) to cancer in 2017.
Aoki also pays homage to him with her sweet, sly rendition of “You’ll Never Know.” Ironically, it was Aoki’s decision to raise a family and run her late husband’s restaurant business that led to her two decades plus stretch between recordings. During this time away from the studio, she taught Japanese and Voice and often sang at the restaurants.
The New England based Aoki’s deep connections to the jazz community allowed her to enlist incredible top talent for the project, including The Tim Ray Trio and special guests like saxophonists Ken Peplowski and Mike Monaghan and trumpeter Greg Hopkins. Now that she’s entered into a new phase of her musical life, it’s exciting to contemplate the kinds of recordings Aoki will bring us in the future. My suggestion: an album of all duets with Mari!