Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Get to Know:Eri Yamamoto

New York City is blessed with an abundance of great music, clubs, and University programs, and thus is a destination for jazz musicians from around the world. Many who live in New York are world-renowned artists, and deservedly so, with long discographies and plenty of press, while others are not nearly as widely known but may be equally as accomplished, and equally well-known within the "jazz inner circle" so to speak.

Eri Yamamoto is one of the latter -- extremely accomplished; with multiple recordings, most recently on AUM Fidelity; a regular gig at Arthur's Tavern since 2000 with her long-standing trio; a record of international accomplishments with other fine artists; but a reputation that seems hidden to the general jazz listening public. The Eri Yamamoto Trio, simply put, is a fine modern jazz trio that more people have to know about, listen to on CD, and go to see at Arthur's Taven or when they come to your city.

A bit of background on Yamamoto before discussing her latest CD, "The Next Page" (AUM Fidelity 2012) and two of her earlier CDs. Eri Yamamoto was born in Osaka, Japan, began playing classical piano at age three, and began writing her own music at age 8. She studied voice, viola, and composition through her high school and college years, leading to her magical moment  when she visited her sister in New York City in 1995.  By random choice she took in a Tommy Flanagan performance and was immediately inspired by her first exposure to live jazz piano to move to New York and dedicate herself to learning jazz. Eri immediately entered the New School's prestigious jazz program, where she studied with Reggie Workman, Junior Mance, and LeeAnn Ledgerwood. Originally versed in the classic voices of Flanagan and Bud Powell, among others, a big turning point for her career was seeing Paul Bley, Paul Motian, and Gary Peacock together at the Knitting Factory in 1996. It showed her how to open up her language, how to free her thoughts and expression, and effectively how to unlock her voice. In 1997, while still in school, she started playing regularly at the Avenue B Social Club, and developed a musical friendship with  pianist Matthew Shipp, another pianist with a modernist's expressive style, who saw in her an artist already expressing "heart and soul [that] actually moved me, which is so unusual for a jazz student."

Since 2000, Eri's trio, with Ikuo Takeuchi on drums and David Ambrosio on bass, has been appearing regularly at Arthur's Tavern, a historic jazz club in New York's Greenwich Village. She has performed at the Hartford International Jazz Festival, An Die Musik in Baltimore, and Lincoln Center Summer Festival in New York City; appeared on two William Parker recordings; and has performed all over Europe including Italy, Holland, Norway, and Portugal.  Eri is also a teacher, having received her master of music in education and composition from Shiga University, Japan.

Yamamoto's style is graced with an ability to describe through her choice of notes the coloration of the world around her, much as Paul Motian did with his drums and brushes. Her style can be very subtle and quiet, but it always is moving forward with a definite jazz rhythm in all that she does. She has developed a style that is laced with subtle colors that can blend notes in unexpected ways. It can require close listening, but it will provide great rewards for those who do; as she puts it, "My voicing is not traditional at all. If I can hear a melody, I feel good." Eri Yamamoto has established herself as an original pianist and composer, with a tight working trio and a strong following among those in the know. Now it is time to spread the word.

"The Next Page" (AUM  Fidelity 2012) is the trio's latest disc. As I listened to it, I wrote down the following adjectives, in no particular order:  melodic, soothing, mellow, quiet, light, subtle, simple, elegant. Her music is all of these things, with simple tunes played with elegant style. The songs sound so easy, the tunes are simple, and yet the structure, the improvisations, the interplay, all create the elegance that characterizes the entire perfomrance. And one more adjective -- swinging -- needs to be added; though the music doesn't swing in the traditional sense, it alsways is moved forward by the use of the bass and drums to provide the meter, and the teamwork is very clear. Thus, despite the gentleness of most of the music, this is definitely a jazz CD and not chamber jazz. There is no showiness, no grand effects, mearely a trio playing with each other and delivering the goods.

Yamamoto's builds each tune from a melody stated at the outset, sometimes a bit sad, sometimes light and airy, and draws out the idea -- folk tunes in some cases, ballads, or the blues in others. She builds the song, adding to the melodies with differing harmonies and accents, but never with bombastic chords or dramatic changes in sound levels. It is all nicely done, understated but wisely so, and each tune leaves a distinct memory. These are organic pieces, not episodic but rather fully realized as a single, harmonious unit from start to finish. Bassist David Ambrosio has much to do with the sound, providing a strong metered bassline at times, counterpoint at others, and providing some great full-bodied soloing, particulalry on the bluesy "Night Shadows" and "Green Grows."  Ikuo Takeuchi's drumming is a collection of great subtlety played often on the ride cymbals with gentle accents from the drums, and he buoys and propels the sound forward without dominating. His composition "Up and Down", the only song not written by Yamamoto, opens the second set (to give the feel of a live show, the disc has a 60 second silent section after song 6 before opening the second set) with a rush and gives Takeuchi his biggest moment in the sun on the kit. Together the three, a unit since 2004, are clearly communicating with their instruments as well as with a telepathic sense and knowledge of each others needs.  The opening "Sparkle Song" takes a simple folk-like melody and stretches it effortlessly into a lovely mid-tempo excursion, "Night Shadows" introduces a bluesy element in the melody set forth by Yamamoto, and "Swimming Song"  is an upbeat way to close the second set.  All of the play is done with a minimum of bombast or showiness, which makes the entire CD a wonderfully cohesive and enjoyable listen, especially if one recognizes the marvelous details, subtle shadings and interplay within each.

Two other Yamamoto CDs are decribed herein, but there are others, like her last one "In Each Day Something Good" (AUM Fidelity 2010), that are equally worth listening to.
"Redwoods" (AUM Fidelity 2008) was Yamamoto's fifth release with her long standing trio. The album provides the same richness a her latest, with Yamamoto's distinctive melodies always inventive, with stong undertones of the blues, folk, or jazz throughout, and a steady hand on the tiller that never goes too far out. Her backing of Takeuchi and Ambrosio is similarly just as solid, with Takeuchi providing as necessary a strong pulse or a discreetly free-ish one with colorings from his kit.  Ambrosio again is an anchor playing a steady beat, conterpoint, or memorable solos as reequired, all with a woody, resonant sound. This disc opens quickly with a rollicking  "This Is An Apple," and ends similarly with the upbeat "Dear Friends." In between are a rich confection of wistful ballads, boppish melodies, and bluesy riffs that involved the entire trio in the defivery of a wonderfully colorful and full-bodied recording. 
Product Details"Duologue" (AUM Fidelity 2008) is a work of a different color,  a collection of improvisatory duets among Ms. Yamamoto and William Parker on bass, Hamid Drake and Federico Ughi on drums, and the saxophonist Daniel Carter."I had a dream," Ms. Yamamoto said. "It was a very clear dream. I was recording a duo album with these musicians. I woke up and thought, 'That's perfect.'" The disc opens and closes with Ughi coloring Yamamoto's themes -- a gospel-tinged  "Thank You" and a bounce  "You Are Welcome."  Drake quietly supports the gentle  "Circular Movement," but is more assertive in complementing the blues-inflected  "Midtown Blues." There is more rhymic diversity at play on this CD, although each tune is still based on strong melodic lines. The more soulful, melodic side of Yamamoto comes to the front with her work with Carter and Parker as demonstrated in the more lyrical "Violet Sky." "Conversation", with Carter on alto, and "Violet Sky" with Carter on tenor, come from further outside the simple patterns that Yamamoto is known for, but she gently ropes in the initial saxaphone burst of sound with her strong piano play and creates a pair of lithe, modern jazz .ballads.  

With the more avant-garde players than on her trio discs, this recording is a bit more angular than the others and may not have the same appeal for those seeking a more mellow experience, though it is still well within the same melodic construct. It is a stronger, modern creative sound, but still retains Yamamoto's sense of lyrical play and melody, and cannot be ignored.

Eri Yamamoto's music is for everyone who appreciates good jazz. It is for  those who like the straight and narrow, with its simple flowing melodiesand subtle nature, or for those seeking a more adventerous modern piano jazz trio with interesting ideas and strong group dynamics. Take a listen to a very underappreciated artist.

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