Eri Yamamoto released two recording in 2008, each of which—in different ways—demanded attention. In a series of duos with friends such as William Parker and Hamid Drake (Duologue), Yamamoto was expansive and free, readily finding ways to play beyond conventional harmony without sacrificing “beautiful” pianism. With her trio (Redwoods), she was more in the pocket, mining vamps and grooves for what they could say about the blues, but always keeping things intelligently sweet.
If you’d barely heard of Yamamoto before 2008, then you just might have a new jazz piano darling on your hands: sweet but also smartly tart.
2010 brings a tasty new trio recording from the New York-based Yamamoto, again with drummer Ikuo Takeuchi and bassist David Ambrosio. In Each Day, Something Good collects ten tracks, half of which were written as the soundtrack to a 1932 film by Yasujiro Ozu. All are Yamamoto compositions—genial and swinging, open-ended and in the pocket.
“Every Day”, for example, starts with a quick eight-note blues phrase, repeated twice, varied, then returning. You expect the solo to explode, swinging, out of the theme, but Yamamoto is a step ahead of you. She and Ambrosio get into a lazy conversation that knocks around the groove but never locks into it. The tune is, in fact, sly but comfortable like an “everyday” sweat shirt or pair of old sneakers.
“A Little Escape” starts with a toggling line that reminds you of Monk, but the harmonies have a folk feeling that is a little Keith Jarrett too. Yamamoto builds the lushness of the arrangement as she improvises with subtly increasing energy—but with the bouncing line now becoming the bass figure. Not every tune is quite that witty or sunny however. “Secret Link” has a melancholy turn to its theme at first, and despite the gospel groove that creeps in, there is a haunting bridge.
All of this playing—the Guaraldi-ish skip of “We’ll Figure Out Blues” to the boppy unison of “I Was Born”—is light and effervescent. “Blue in Tunisia”, picks up a quiet polyrhythmic groove as it swells. It may not be fun, but there is still a playfulness in its adoption of Afro-Arabic mannerisms. The only true ballad on In Each Day, Something Good is “Let’s Eat, Then Everything Will Be OK”, which relieves some dark solo piano with a quiet trio section of balance and pleasure. Yamamoto keeps all her playing consonant and easy to hear. Despite a lineage of playing with more dissonant artists, Yamamoto herself is easy to enjoy.
Too easy to enjoy? This latest work from Yamamoto flirts with a slightness that her 2008 recordings avoided. It never really gives her the chance to let a free line unspool in pungent contrast to the set harmonies. She doesn’t seek to mine the gold that exists a half step beyond the blues changes, or to explore the territory that her lyricism sometimes suggests but doesn’t explicitly state. In this trio format, Yamamoto seems happy to keep things pleasantly constrained. Within the limits she sets for her group, the playing is exquisite. But the limits themselves seem narrower than her own sensibility requires.
Among the traditional jazz pianists on the scene today, Eri Yamamoto is a fine example, and she has a compositional gift that, over time, will probably grow more distinctive and unique. But in her more traditional bag, she doesn’t bring the power, say, of Benny Green or the harmonic dazzle of Bill Charlap. Which is why I thirst, as a listener, to hear her play with the lyrical daring that is her special quality.
In the meantime, we have In Each Day, Something Good, which, by it’s presence in your life, certainly fulfills the promise of its title. A good collection of original piano jazz, you bet. A pleasant and occasionally spellbinding set of jazz treats. The best we’re going to hear from Eri Yamamoto? I suspect that the best is yet to come.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More