Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eri Yamamoto Finds the Good Everyday

Patrons weaving their way around us at Arthur’s Tavern would hardly be surprised to hear Eri Yamamoto and her trio discussing music. The occasional Italian might have thrown them. Following her Sunday night “Thank You 2009” performance at Cornelia Street Café (a two year tradition for hip New Yorkers ringing out the old), I was able to catch the busy pianist-composer after her usual Saturday night set at Arthur’s Tavern to discuss her new CD, In Each Day, Something Good, which releases today. Her longtime drummer Ikuo Takeuchi and frequent bassist Arthur Kell sat-in to provide their typical rock-solid support (or perhaps to mock my skills as interviewer) and also add a few words of their own (usually in English for my benefit).

On and off the bandstand, the rapport between Yamamoto and the regular members of her trio is immediately evident. She and Takeuchi have been playing together for fourteen years and the much in-demand bassist Dave Ambrosio has been recording and touring with Yamamoto’s trio for the last five years (Kevin Tkacz completes the battery of bassists that regularly join her at Arthur’s three nights a week, when she is not touring). “We don’t have to say anything,” Yamamoto said, describing her relationship with Takeuchi and Ambrosio. “It is like we share the same musical mind.”

As a result, Yamamoto’s trio has an instantly recognizable sound all their own, yet certainly reflective of her own aesthetic sensibilities. As she explains: “In music or any art-form, I prefer work that uses space—things that are not 100% complete, but have something identifiably missing. That makes them more interesting.”

In their time together, Yamamoto’s trio has toured extensively, racking up many war stories on the road. One telling anecdote occurred when Yamamoto returned to her native Japan. As she recalled: “To make our next gig, we had to transfer from the bullet train to a local train that only left every two hours. The problem was the platforms were very far apart and Ikuo was loaded down with his drums. I ran ahead to ask the conductor to hold the train for us, but instead he came out and carried Ikuo’s drum cases by himself. We could still hear he was short of breath when he announced the next two station stops.”

No matter how friendly Japanese train conductors might generally be, I cannot imagine anyone but Eri Yamamoto convincing one to disregard his timetables in order to lug a bunch of drums on-board. She has that ability to win people over wherever she goes, including the often rambunctious crowd at Arthur’s. In particular, she seems to have forged a special relationship with Italian audiences, which is why she has been learning Italian (evidently Takeuchi has picked up a fair amount as well).

“In the last three years, I went to Italy over ten times, she explained. “I’ve been seriously studying the language for the last two months because I want to be able to show my appreciation. Often people will come not necessarily knowing who we are, yet they come anyway. That means a lot, so it is nice to be able to thank them in their language.”

In fact, many of the compositions on In Each Day were inspired by her frequent travels, like “Sheep Song,” the product of a tour through Wales, and “Blue in Tunisia,” whose origin is self-explanatory. However, the new CD includes something new for her, a suite of compositions constituting an original soundtrack to the classic 1932Yasujiro Ozu silent film, I Was Born, But… According to Yamamoto, it started with a casual observation:

“A friend of mine happened to mention that some of my music reminded him of a movie soundtrack and suggested I compose my own. I didn’t want to write something for a film that already had a score, so I started considering silent movies . . . When I thought of Ozu’s I Was Born, it seemed perfect. I liked the fact that it was Japanese and the story appealed to me. I don’t really like special effect movies. I prefer films about ordinary people.” Indeed, Ozu’s blend of slapstick comedy and shrewd social commentary would be perfectly complimented by Yamamoto’s music, which is both playful and contemplative in equal measure. (And just for the record, her favorite film is Cinema Paradiso—another Italian connection.)

In Each Day also marks a milestone: her fifteenth year performing in New York. “Of course,” she readily conceded, “being a musician here can be challenging, but you have to remember to look for the good in every day.” Like her previous trio CD, it was released on the Brooklyn-based Aum Fidelity label and features a cover painting by her nephew, Leo Yamamoto (“I still owe him a trip to the Japanese barbeque,” she confessed.).

While she would like to tour less this year in order to “focus, think, and write,” Yamamoto still has plenty of international gigs already booked, including an unusual trio concert in Montreal with fellow pianist Yves Léveillé and oboe player Paul McCandless on March 4th. A duo CD with Léveillé is also forthcoming sometime in the future.

In Each Day is another fresh and intriguing musical statement from one of the busiest and most original jazz composers and improvisers on the scene today. As always, you can always hear the compositions that will eventually comprise her next CD as she hones them in live performance at Arthur’s every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights—at least when she is in town. To check her busy schedule or for more information about her CDs go to Yamamoto’s website at: http://www.eriyamamoto.com/.

(CD Cover art: Leo Yamamoto
Eri Yamoto photo: Rita Cigolini
Trio photo: Agnieszka Kubeczko)