Free or avant-garde jazz—the kind of jazz that, beginning in the late 1950s, began to dispense with set harmonic patterns in favor of allowing improvisers to make free melodic choices “outside” of them—has not been sweet on pianists. The piano, it would seem, is bound and determined to hem you in. All those chords, all that pretty ringing harmony.
There have been exceptions, of course. Cecil Taylor plays the piano like a glorious drum, and Paul Bley managed to play pretty and free at once. With Charles Mingus, Don Pullen seemed to unleash all 88 keys at once and, more recently, Matthew Shipp has given the piano a bit of a punk aesthetic.
What to make, then, of Eri Yamamoto, a classical music student from Osaka, Japan who chanced upon a Tommy Flanagan concert while visiting her sister in New York and quickly took Flanagan’s advice to move there? She became a student of Reggie Workman at the New School, delved into Bud Powell and the like, then picked up working gigs in the city, where she attracted the attention of none other than Matthew Shipp. Yamamoto has since made a home for herself playing with bassist William Parker in a trio and his vocal Raining On The Moon sextet. She’s also put out five trio records as a leader. In all this work, she has managed to combine pianistic precision with a freewheeling spirit.
Of all the “out” pianists in Yamamoto’s spiritual lineage, she is the most delicate and the most unabashedly sunny. Yet she has still been embraced by an out-crowd that plainly appreciates her ability to find a way to mesh with their liberated music in a non-restrictive manner. It’s quite a trick. This year has brought to market two releases by Yamamoto on the AUM Fidelity label: Duologue, a series of duos with Parker and his compadres; and Redwoods, the latest effort from her trio. Both discs find Yamamoto in fine fettle—lyrical and rhythmic at once, straining against tonality without ever breaking violently free.
The new trio album (she has recorded four times previously with drummer Ikuo Takeuchi and once before with bassist David Ambrosio) is a more sedate and measured affair. The themes are generally open and easy to hear, midtempo grooves that provide limited harmonic movement but significant interest all the same. “This is an Apple” is a subtle gospel groove in 7/4 time, and when Yamamoto solos, she is happy to be chordal first and gentle second. “Wonder Land” is a two-chord vamp with a simple arpeggio bass line. Tunes like these have the simplicity of some of Keith Jarrett’s best work, but the playing is infinitely more measured, almost “naïve”. Yamamoto’s jazz sounds freshly discovered—less like the music of a young student at a jazz college, more like jazz from the inside. It’s more than a little bit joyful.
There is some knottiness in this music too, though it comes through as a “free” musician’s affection for bebop more than a willful kind of “difficulty”. “Bumpy Trail” begins with an angular melody played in two hands, but then it opens into a free collective improvisation without set harmonies. The trio is beautifully telepathic and conversational.
The ballad performances are rapturous. “Redwoods” floats in a Pacific sky, with Takeuchi masterful on brushes. “Magnolia” exploits the treble range of the piano, setting up a series of harmonies that are surprising but sensual, in 5/4 time. “Storyteller” begins with a lovely statement from Ambrosio, leading to a melody that’s reminiscent of Annette Peacock’s compostions. Indeed, this trio is probably best compared to the arresting trio of Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian as they were captured playing Annette Peacock tunes on the brilliant ECM disc Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (2001).
Duologue is the more adventurous and diverse recording of the two. Four of the tracks pair Yamamoto’s piano only with percussion, either Hamid Drake’s frame drum or Federico Ughi’s kit. Though she is never bombastic, the pianist has no problem filling the air with melody, harmony, and bass line at once, which allows her percussive partners the room to be subtle and supportive without trying to out-pound her. “Midtown Blues”, for example, is a stuttering 12-bar form with a winsome bounce and a syncopated ostinato groove. “Thank You”, by contrast, has a slowly developing melody over a series of shifting chords, under which mallets and brushes create a shimmering net of urgency.
The duets with bassist William Parker, by contrast, use a more conventional jazz form. “Subway Song” is a Monk-ish theme with an appropriately swinging bass walk. It’s a joy to hear Parker swing hard. He turns out to be as melodic and generous a “traditional” player as he is in other modes. Yamamoto is listening carefully even as she solos, and the result is both a smile and a tapped toe. “Muse” is a straight-up mournful ballad that could become a standard. The question these tunes raise is plain: What, if anything, marks this music as being beyond the jazz mainstream? Indeed, with the Ornette Wars of the 1960s behind us and the Wynton Wars of the 1990s now irrelevant, does such a distinction even exist any more?
On the tracks where Yamamoto duets with saxophonist Daniel Carter, some glimmer of “outness” remains. “Conversation” sounds largely improvised, with no set tonal center. Carter has a sweet sound on alto, but you can feel the two players searching for a topic at the start. It is utterly arresting the way only well-played free jazz can be, giving you the sense that anything could happen next. As the two players find their way to playing utterly together, the beauty of it is amplified by the slight atonality.
Some similarly lovely music in recent years has left me cold—the trio albums by Tord Gustavsen, for example. But Eri Yamamoto brings a more liberated sensibility to her work. As “pretty” as her playing often is, it is cloaked in the impulse of the moment. Whatever she has gleaned from Shipp and Workman, Bley and Parker—but also Monk and Powell and Tommy Flanagan—makes her playing suspenseful and just slightly dangerous. In my heart, it scores high.
What a pianist: a little dangerous and a whole lot lovely.