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Best Bets

Our top picks for the week

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in songs for safer steering

"The pure products of America go crazy--mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of New Jersey," William Carlos Williams writes in "To Elsie," perhaps the most chronically resonant American poem written between the world wars. "Turn Up the Faders," a NATHAN ASHER & THE INFANTRY song borrowing heavily from that north Jersey vision of Bruce Springsteen, recently nabbed a spot as a finalist in the International Songwriting Competition (out of 15,000 other contestants), and the 80-year hindsight it shares with Williams' work--"So we take the A-Train into the city / Stick seats shake at the station ... As dusk turns into evening / We just get funneled to the clubs"--is terrifying. His band--a juggernaut sextet full of E-Street black licorice--multiplies the drama. Perry Wright, the songsmith who leads openers THE PRAYERS AND TEARS OF ARTHUR DIGBY SELLERS, realizes Williams' waking nightmare, too, but his band offers an anemic acoustic-based Radiohead gaze as opposed to Asher's sweaty Springsteen stare. Two writers with a vision of how bad things can get and the eyes to at least see the tunnel offer one solution: Finally, perhaps, there's someone to drive the car. CHARLOTTE'S PYRAMID--sublime, subliminal country--opens at 10 p.m. at the LINCOLN THEATRE on Saturday, Feb. 18. Tickets are $7. For more, see www.lincolntheatre.com. --Grayson Currin

in leading ladies

Jazz pianist TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI has defied gender and racial barriers to become the leader, composer and arranger of one of America's most original big bands. Born in Manchuria, she took up piano at age 7. At age 16, following World War II, she moved with her family back to Japan under American occupation.

There she learned how to play jazz off of "V-disks," and started her first band as a leader in 1950. Oscar Peterson discovered her playing in Tokyo, which led to a recording session and eventually a full scholarship to Berklee in the United States. There she got the opportunity to sit in with greats like Ellington, Miles, Mingus and Coltrane.

But Akiyoshi almost quit music in the '60s, by then a single mother struggling to survive in the New York jazz scene. Despite her training and experience as a player, she continued to be viewed as an outsider: a Japanese woman playing American jazz.

That all turned around with the encouragment of her second husband, reed soloist Lew Tabackin. Akiyoshi returned to music by embracing her Japanese heritage as a source of new material for American music. The Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band has since become one of the most distinctive in jazz history. The band plays Akiyoshi's tunes and arrangements exclusively, which seriously swing through a series of complex metrics with a unique lyricism.

The influence of her Asian heritage comes out not only in her music, but in the way she reflects on it. "I consider the orchestra as my hands," Akiyoshi says in Renee Cho's 1983 documentary about her, Jazz Is My Native Language. "Like in Buddhism, female Buddha has a thousand hands to help others. I feel each instrument is an extension of my hand."

Akiyoshi joins the DUKE JAZZ ENSEMBLE in a concert of her works this Friday, Feb. 17 in DUKE'S BALDWIN AUDITORIUM. Tickets are $10 for the general public, $5 with student and senior discounts; contact Duke's box office at 684-4444.
--Sylvia Pfeiffenberger

in the funniest six days in february

DSI Comedy Theater presents the sixth annual DIRTY SOUTH IMPROV FESTIVAL, the largest improv comedy festival in the Southeast. Professional groups and college teams from across the country descend upon North Carolina for this six-day, three-venue event. You can see Anthony King (Comedy Central's Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, A&E's Biography and MTV's Miss Seventeen) and Charlie Todd (Improv Everywhere, declared one of the "10 Funniest People You've Never Heard Of" by New York Magazine) perform in the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show on Friday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.

You can also learn how to do it at home in workshops held throughout the week. It's happening from Feb. 21-26 at the ARTSCENTER and DSI COMEDY THEATER in Carrboro and UNC-CHAPEL HILL'S GERRARD HALL. For the full lineup, check out festival.dirtysouthimprov.com/2006, or do it the old fashioned way and call 338-8150. --Caroline Monday

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