This long-standing piano trio is not breaking ground, but their sound is charming, skipping, and Guaraldi-esque.
Eri Yamamoto has been leading a trio with the same bassist and drummer for 12 years. Their regular, thrice-a-week gigs at Arthur’s Tavern in the West Village of Manhattan keeps them together and tight. The band is family but still loose and easy. The music, well, it’s happy.
Life, the trio’s latest recording of all-original Yamamoto material, contains 14 pleasing tunes. The general mood is skipping and smart. If some of Yamamoto’s early recordings flirted with harmonic freedom (as did her association with downtown musicians Matthew Shipp and William Parker), her recent output has been more in the mold of her first jazz inspiration Tommy Flanagan: elegant, singing modern jazz.
The better comparison, however, is to the underrated but much-loved Vince Guaraldi, the pianist known to most through his charming music for the Peanuts specials on TV in the 1960s. Yamamoto and her trio are experts at a light touch and an easy-to-dig charm that is sometimes lilting, sometimes swing, and sometimes puckish. Even when the gang gets a little wild, it’s charming wild.
Take the opening tune, “I Love”, which gallops along in an irregular 3-3-3 meter -- not a simple little tune by any means. It is feisty but immensely genial. There’s a ton of new jazz out there these days featuring complex compositions in these kinds of meters, but few clock in at four stirring minutes of hip-swaying funk, complete with a melodic David Ambrosio bass solo. That it slides into a tender waltz reminiscent of Chick Corea’s “Children's Songs” seems perfectly natural. It’s a lovely piece that keeps spiraling upward as Yamamoto’s piano seeks a higher, grander exploration of the tune’s basic idea. It stays utterly tasteful, but there is a weight to how she keeps pushing the idea throughout her improvisation.
The predominant influence for Yamamoto on Life can be heard clearly on the title track, which channels the country-fried gospel that Keith Jarrett played so effortlessly, particularly back in the 1970s. “Life” exploits this loose feeling to tasty, bluesy effect. A similar vibe, in ballad form, makes “Passing By” a graceful and easy listen. “Ground” is in a similar Jarrett-ian vein, with drummer Ikuo Takeuchi providing a a solid but lean backbeat as Yamamoto injects the simple but insistent flow of chords with a gospel power. The closer, “Last Night’s Theme” carries some of this DNA as well, though this trio articulates these harmonies with a much lighter touch. That easiness with time and feeling is where your ears start to hear this as next-generation Guaraldi: light flecked with a slightly pensive outlook, always resolving toward sunshine.
I still love it best when the trio moves away from charm and into something more daring. “New York Time” is hardly free jazz, but it looks at a short puzzle theme that winds around itself in a small knot of licks. It doesn’t sound like a cool tune built around appealing chord changes but more like a musical idea that the trio keeps poking at, playing with, and striving to solve. “Revive” is in a similar mode, working from a more elusive theme and setting the trio off in search of revelation. Not that there’s anything wrong with great melodies (check out the hip blues tune on “You Are Welcome”), but when the chords alone provide “the answer”, Yamamoto and Ambrosio seem content to just ride clever melodic invention through the chords that doesn’t surprise us or challenge us -- or them.
Perhaps the darkest and weightiest theme on Life is also its most successful. “Half Moon” is a gorgeous minor theme states in a low register. The bass plays a modified tango at a slow tempo, but the harmonies are a modified blues. It gives Yamamoto and her bandmates a wide landscape for exploration -- less winsome than most themes here but still stirring, dramatic, and appealing.
Eri Yamamoto and her trio are not redefining the form in any way. But that’s just fine. On any given night in New York City there should be jazz like this, ready for your ears, deserving of a wider audience. Aficionados should hear what’s wonderful here, even if it’s mostly been done before. That’s okay, because Yamamoto is doing it right now and a few times a week, downtown. Play on.