The classic jazz piano trio—acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and trap kit—is about the most versatile ensemble in modern music. Even putting aside the decades of brilliant jazz trios, you can point to active groups in 2013 that define wildly disparate styles: from Vijay Iyer to Jason Moran to Brad Mehldau and on and on.
Eri Yamamoto is not as well know, but her trio with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi has been together almost a decade and has levels of telepathy that are enviable. This is a band that consistently generates a sound of joy without falling back on many jazz clichés. In that regard, it’s hard to imagine a jazz trio with more magic at its fingertips.
The title track is illustrative. It begins with a delicate Japanese folk song that Yamamoto taps out delicately using many repeated notes. The trio then enters with a related but original theme that uses “inside” harmonies but also skitters over a cool variation of 6/8 time. Yamamoto (who has roots in straight ahead jazz but plenty of experience with the likes of avant-downtown bassist William Parker) spins a series of variations that seem almost light and gentle, but they dance and move and rise and begin to gather momentum like a river built from a series of smaller mountain streams. Eventually, it’s roaring.
At its most dancing and joyful, Yamamoto’s trio can seem a bit like Keith Jarrett Lite, but that’s an unfair simplification. The opening track, “Memory Dance”, has a soulful/simple melody that spins into a grooving piano solo that stays consonant and fluid without ever rising to Full Jarrett levels of ecstasy. But, at the same time, the conversation she has with Takeuchi on drums is a marvel. And this strength recurs often on this date. Yamamoto is less a Very Imposing Pianist than she is a very good listener and leader. On “A Few Words”, for example, she simply lets Takeuchi simmer under her ruminations as they both—together—bring things to a boil.
Some of the tunes here give the trio more room for experimentation and daring. “Heart” has a limited melody but sets up the band to move freely outside the theme, which it does in a gradual way, such that Yamamoto’s return after the bass solo is a series of colors and flashes, each on original and interesting. “Real Story” has a gospel feel and backbeat in the rhythm section, and it seems to set the band free somewhat, being little more than two-chord vamp.
For me, the band is merely good but not as interesting when it is playing in an impressionistic mode. “Echo” sounds like material that Mehldau or even Chick Corea might excel with, but this seems merely like very good playing somewhat bleached of identity. “Around the Way” is a snappy and angular theme that swings, and Ambrosio’s solo is tasty, but it doesn’t take advantage of the trio’s core strengths. “Playground” has a similar quality—cool music but hard to reconcile with what I like best about the band.
What can be missing on Yamamoto’s recordings is a core of distinctive compositions. Her writing seems best when it is simple and provides a launching point for improvisations that move outside the harmonies and into excitement and texture. But it’s near impossible to imagine any Yamamoto tunes being covered by other jazz musicians or really sticking in your head. Given that this live set draws on the trio’s repertoire, widely, it tells you that this weakness is something general. It makes me eager to hear how the group might approach some standard material or songs written by other, like-minded musicians.
That said, this is a date to enjoy. The magic of the band comes often enough, even if it’s not constant. If Eri Yamamoto is a less imposing pianist than some of the other folks leading great trios today, that doesn’t lessen the pleasures of this band, at its best, working as the best bands must: very much together.
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