Eri Yamamoto: Duologue/Redwoods

An inside-out jazz pianist, playing duets with the cream of a downtown crop and playing with her trio. All arresting music.

Eri Yamamoto


Contributors: William Parker, Hamid Drake, Federico Ughi, Daniel Carter, David Ambrosio, Ikuo Takeushi
Label: AUM Fidelity
US Release Date: 2008-06-24
UK Release Date: 2008-06-30

Eri Yamamoto


Label: AUM Fidelity
US Release Date: 2008-09-09
UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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