Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hiromi Kasuga Callin’

New York Callin’
By Hiromi Kasuga

It is quite a sight to watch Hiromi Kasuga play on KumGangSan’s mountainous stage precariously cantilevered in mid-air, at their fashionable Korean Town location. Of course, she also plays on more traditional bandstands at well-known New York jazz venues, including the Blue Note and the Kitano. One of the top Japanese jazz pianists currently performing in The City, Kasuga has recently released a new CD appropriately titled New York Callin.’

Kasuga kicks things off with Charlie Parker’s burner “Relaxin’ At Camarillo,” augmenting her trio with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, establishing the group’s bebop chops right from the start. However, her interpretive gifts are really showcased on the following “Loss of Love,” a Henry Mancini theme from Vittorio De Sica's 1970 film, The Sunflower. Typically performed in a maudlin vein, Kasuga gives it a fittingly meditative intro, before quickening the tempo and adding a Latin-ish flavor, truly transforming the tune with her stylish alchemy.

Kasuga’s originals have a crisp Hardbop vibe, that sound partially rooted in the classic Blue Note era, but have a freshness distinctly her own. “Raindrops” is a trio feature that effectively represents the pitter-patter of precipitation, serving as a launching pad for effervescent solos from Kasuga and bassist Marco Panascia. The similarly aquatically titled “Ripple,” features an augmented front line of Mike DiRubbo on soprano saxophone and Magnarelli on flugelhorn, perfectly in-synch on Kasuga’s lovely melody. Marked by subtle shifts in dynamics, it is a compelling composition that inspires striking solos from DiRubbo and the leader.

It is followed by two original trio tributes, which differ in tone dramatically. While “Ms. Butterfly,” an elegant ballad inspired by the tragic Puccini heroine and “Monk’s Dance” is a sprightly homage to the innovative pianist composer (possibly referencing the little dance Monk sometimes performed to show his enthusiasm for a sideman’s solo), both show the flexibility and swinging musicianship of Kasuga and her rhythm section.

Throughout Callin,’ Kasuga changes up the mood and tempos nicely. Midway through, she digs back into the bebop bag for Bud Powell’s “Cleopatra’s Dream,” arranged as a fiery Latinized jolt of energy. She concludes with a “Honoka’s Lullaby,” a beautifully tranquil solo piano performance dedicated to Kasuga’s niece.

Both as a composer and a soloist, Kasuga has an appealing vitality that really comes through on Callin.’ It is a highly recommended release that rewards repeated listening with its style and verve. She plays KumGangSan weekend evenings this month, before leaving on a Japanese tour in August (check her website for her performance schedule).