Pianist Eri Yamamoto Brings Lyrical, Melodic Treasures to Baby Grand Jazz Series

Jan 14, 2015

"If it's not hummable, that means I just wrote down a series of notes, and didn't really hear the melody from my heart."
Eri Yamamoto

Although first trained in the intellectual rigors of classical music and later well-schooled in the cerebral practices of free jazz, the exceptional Japanese-born pianist/composer Eri Yamamoto most prizes the invention of pure, basic, heartfelt melody. 

A gifted, lyrical artist, Yamamoto finds emotionally expressive depth in the elegance of simplicity by inventing compelling, singable melodic lines whose sonic poetry rings true to both head and heart.

"When composing, I often start by humming a very simple melody, and if I can hum the melody, that’s it!" Yamamoto said from her New York City apartment, where she composes on her custom-refurbished, 1898 Steinway grand piano. "If I cannot sing the melody, something is wrong with it. If it’s not hummable, that means I just wrote down a series of notes, and didn’t really hear the melody from my heart -- and that’s not natural." 

Yamamoto brings her artful, swinging synthesis of open-ended invention and beautifully melodic and bold sound as she returns to Hartford for an encore duo performance at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 18, at the Hartford Public Library’s free Baby Grand Jazz Series in the downtown main branch’s scenic, gloriously vaulted atrium. As she did in her warmly received 2012 performance in the library’s popular Sunday matinee series, she’ll perform original material from her acclaimed albums as well as newly written pieces. She’ll be accompanied by her drummer/percussionist Ikuo Takeuchi, her frequent, now virtually telepathic collaborator of almost 19 years in both her noted trio and duo formats.

The downtown Hartford Public Library.
Credit Hartford Public Library

With her luminous tone, immaculate articulation and crisp phrasing -- signature attributes of her first American keyboard idol, Tommy Flanagan -- Yamamoto is a sonic painter. Nature and everyday life, she said, are her prime sources of inspiration.

A quick learner -- her facility with English was merely bookish at best when she first arrived in the States in 1995 -- Yamamoto is also a close observer with a novelist’s eye for telling details about what’s going on around her. That includes her awareness of everything from her first encounter with the blab of the pavement of New York City streets and the varied ambience of concert venues to the protocol of recording sessions and the regimen of classrooms where she studied at the New School, where she was brought into the jazz fold there through the encouragement of the noted bassist Reggie Workman.

In moving celebrations of nature, Yamamoto's expressionistic, even impressionistic sound portraits grace her album Redwoods, works inspired by the majestic trees in the Muir Woods near San Francisco. Even her wise use of the sound of silence helps make these mythic trees’ godlike presence manifest itself in the imagination of any empathetic listener.

Eri Yamamoto's album Firefly.
Credit Amazon.com

Then there’s Yamamoto's use of everyday life as a creative catalyst.

In an autobiographical vein, for example, the tonalist/pianist creates original cityscape impressions of her beloved native Osaka, Japan, and of her no less loved, adopted hometown of New York City. These reflections illuminate her first live album, Firefly, her ninth as a leader and most recent release, recorded in 2012.

Sometimes dreams themselves are the source of Yamamoto’s lovely pieces. “Many times, before we play a song in a concert setting,” she said, “I try to give a little bit of the story behind how I came up with that particular tune. I hope that helps the audience connect with and get into the tune. Maybe each person might have a different view, but at least they can create a scene using their own imaginations right along with our music.”

Eri Yamamoto's album Duologue.
Credit eriyamamoto.com

One of Yamamoto’s albums, Duologue, was inspired by a dream she had of duet performances with a variety of top musicians. “I dreamed that I was at the studio playing a few original compositions in a duo format with very specific musicians,” she said. “I woke up and wrote down the music that I had been playing in my dream, quickly writing down as much as possible. Later, I called the record producer, and said I wanted to make a duo album with those same musicians who were in my dream, playing the music that I had heard and written down. And he said yes.”

Thus the material for Duologue was transformed from the dream world to a flesh-and-blood dream album.

Yamamoto has performed in Hartford several times before, and is delighted to be back playing in the library, which she said “is very beautiful and has a really spectacular atmosphere.”

Eri Yamamoto.
Credit Jimmy Katz

Because of the atrium’s unique, sometimes almost ethereal acoustics generated by its lofty ceiling, Yamamoto said she is especially happy to be playing a duo format of piano and drums.

“Because we don’t have a bass player, it definitely gives the two of us much more space to work in. And with the library’s very high ceiling, we literally and even physically have more space to paint in. We can paint the air in there,” Yamamoto said.

“Sometimes an echo even comes back from the ceiling and heightens the contrast of silence and sound,” Yamamoto said, elated by the acoustical bonuses and special effects the ceiling might provide for the duo’s arching sounds. “My drummer Ikuo Takeuchi is a very special percussionist who, besides keeping the pulse, is also quite a painter, and very much knows how to paint the moment. I can’t wait to play there again.” Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6300.

Lacy’s Legion Loves to Swing

On Frank Lacy’s opening salvo of a solo on his 2014 disc, The Smalls Legacy Band Live at Smalls, the veteran trombonist makes what sounds like a celebratory allusion to I Found a New Baby.

Perhaps that passing reference, made only a few bars into his first chorus was at least a subliminal expression or squeal of sheer delight that the old warrior feels when playing with his aggressively hard-swinging, post-bop sextet stocked with fire-eating Young Turks, take-no-prisoners players happily serving alongside their gray-bearded guru celebrated for his heroics in both mainstream and cutting-edge jazz warfare.

Lacy, who has often played the tough, go-to-soloist with everybody from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Mingus Big Band to similar heroics with such experimentalists as Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill, leads his young Praetorian Guard in The Smalls Legacy Band as they storm into New Haven Saturday, January 17, to unleash their firepower at 8:00 pm at The 9th Note, the jazz supper club at 56 Orange Street.

Lacy’s legion features trumpeter Josh Evans, a Nutmeg native son with a rising national reputation; Stacy Dillard, tenor and soprano saxophones; Theo Hill, pianist; Ameen Saleem, bass; and Kush Abadey, drums. Basically, it’s the same band as the one on the Smalls LIVE label release, with the single exception that Rashaan Carter plays bass on the live recording made in the fall of 2012 at the Greenwich Village jazz club.

Frank Lacy and Josh Evans
Credit joshevansmusic.com

If the Smalls session is a portent of things to come, the Elm City jazz spot ought to be rocking, not just because of the old brass master’s prowess, but also from the explosive energies of his two frontline co-players, Evans and Dillard.

Especially Evans, who sets a high, sizzling, standard right from the opening track, a Lacy original called "Stranded." The firebrand trumpeter sustains his Fahrenheit 451 heat level throughout the session, and his seven tracks each stretch out for an average of ten minutes or so. By the disc’s grand finale -- Freddie Hubbard’s "The Intrepid Fox" -- Evans is at maximum sizzle, lighting a fire under both Dillard and Hill, inspiring his bandmates to even greater, burning heights.

Lacy, a sui generis trombone master, is a most generous leader, granting his young protégés plenty of time to stretch out, including pianist Theo Hill’s dynamic displays of Tyneresque pyrotechnics. On two tracks, Lacy even totally abstains from soloing on trombone. On one of these boneless servings, he gives a warm sample of his gritty vocal style as a soulful balladeer. His singing on an original called "Carolyn’s Dance" is seasoned with saucy vibrato and plaintive feeling fluctuating from falsetto phrasing to deep, heartfelt husky tones.

Typical of Smalls's invaluable LIVE release series, the CD captures the loose and risky, free spirit of a live performance, free of the oppressively sanitary, processed sound of a studio session.

A constant throughout the CD is that the band, borrowing a commandment from the Art Blakey gospel, is not one bit ashamed to swing straight ahead. In fact, it fearlessly and flagrantly violates the prevailing dogma of political correctness that looks down its nose at swing as heretically retro and outrageously outré.

For the New Haven date, The Smalls Legacy Band is formally billed as The Frank Lacy and Josh Evans Legacy Band, a slight change in nomenclature, but not in this jazz vehicle’s fundamental drive, power and road-tested cruising speed. Cover: $10.00. Information: (203) 691-9918.

Harp’s Accord with Free Jazz

Zeena Parkins, the fearlessly experimental contemporary harpist, lifts Real Art Ways’ successful Improvisations series to a new electronic realm of glory with her iconoclastic string theory that stretches the conception of the historically hallowed harp from its ancient celestial and Celtic traditions to the cosmic possibilities of the digital and the infinite.

Whether using unorthodox technique to coax new sounds from her acoustic harps or when breaking new sonic ground with her unique, custom-made, high-tech electric harps, Parkins explores strange new worlds as she boldly goes where no harpist has gone before.

Parkins, who envisions her hipper, hyper-harp as what she calls “a sound machine of limitless capacity,” joins forces at 7:00 pm on Saturday, January 17, with guitarist/bassist Joe Morris and cornetist Stephen Haynes, curators of the monthly Improvisations series, which celebrates free jazz with totally unrehearsed performances at RAW, 56 Arbor Street, Hartford.

Besides leading her own bands and making her own recordings, Parkins is a versatile, top-gun harpist for hire, having collaborated with an array of artists ranging from Bjork to John Zorn and including, among many others, Elliott Sharp, Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton, Yoko Ono, Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith. An award-winning composer with a strong commitment to writing scores for dance but also for both theater and film, her compositions have been commissioned by numerous organizations ranging from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to The Whitney Museum of American Art.

A fine arts degree graduate of Bard College and a classically trained pianist (with, not surprisingly, a special early empathy for such kindred-soul, iconic rule-breakers as the innovative, 20th century composer, Arnold Schoenberg), Parkins is also a noted educator. Besides lecturing at Oxford and Princeton universities, she has taught at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at Bard, her alma mater, and has served as a distinguished visiting professor at Mills College Graduate Music Department. Her arsenal of instruments is supplemented by her skills on keyboards, accordion, voice, and drums.

Zeena Parkins
Credit Facebook

Music is all invented in the moment in the Improvisations series, which is virtually consecrated to extemporaneous expression and creative composition on the spot.

You can see the whole spontaneous process, from conception to birth, all up close in RAW’s intimate setting. If exalted or just plain puzzled, you can even talk directly to the improvising artists. You can discover why they’re so passionately committed to the risky business of creating something new on the razor’s edge of the moment, which, after all, is a double-edged blade. It can slice both ways, either to ecstatic revelation or to the musical equivalent of razor rash, nicks, cuts and a humiliating loss of face. Tickets: $15.00, general public; $12.00, RAW members; and, in the series’ bid to reach out to young listeners, only $5.00 for students. Information: realartways.org and (860) 232-1006.

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