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I’m slightly ashamed to say that before I put on this CD, I had never before heard Junko Onishi play. Perhaps that’s a testament to the difficulty female jazz musicians have being heard and taken seriously. One look at Onishi’s credentials and you know she’s a contender, having occupied the piano chair for Jessie Davis, Gary Thomas, Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, and Joe Lovano. She recorded a trio album some years back with Billy Higgins and Rodney Whitaker. Fragile is her first studio record in three years, and it features some blistering piano and Rhodes work. Unfortunately, it’s deeply marred by some horrific repertoire decisions.
Onishi is off to a fantastic start with "BWV" (called "Phaethon" in the liner notes), a burning track that recalls 70s fusion at its best. Sure, maybe it’s a throwback, but when Onishi gets her piano and Rhodes solos going you’d better have on your seatbelt. Drummer Karriem Riggins (aka "Ol Skool Jamz") tears it up, as does veteran Marsalis bassist Reginald Veal, who plays electric here, much to my surprise. "Complexions" follows — a subtly swinging, loosely structured post-bop gem. Onishi unleashes sophisticated phrase after phrase, suggesting shades of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. It’s the real deal.
Then, like an 18-wheeler taking a turn too fast, the disc skids off the highway and into a ditch for three whole consecutive tracks. First is a pointless cover of the Righteous Brothers’ "You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’." OK, so Onishi can play authentic soul piano and deploy some decent reharmonizations on a well-known pop tune, but after the first two excellent originals, who needs it? A cover of Les McCann’s "Compared to What" sinks us even deeper into the ditch, with a cheesy vocal by a male guest singer named "Peace." And then, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Onishi breaks out a cover of "Hey Joe." Numb to the pain at this point, I began to wonder what this record is trying to be. In her liner notes, Onishi says, "I think it’s all right to play pop or mix jazz with pop." I think it’s alright too, but not at the expense of artistic focus. Onishi also remarks on the spontaneous decision making that prevailed during the recording session. A well-crafted original jazz composition can benefit greatly from spontaneity. But a thrown-together Hendrix cover sounds like ... a thrown-together Hendrix cover.
With Onishi’s own "Eulogia Variation" we’re back to music again. But just as it ends, Veal crashes in on synthesized bass with the opening riff of Cream’s "Sunshine of Your Love." And thus the album closes, with yet another 60s cover. I’ve never been a fan of the rock cover trend in the jazz world. The concept has sent many a fine jazz CD off the tracks, and it manages nearly to ruin this one entirely. I literally have no idea what Onishi was thinking. The superior playing on the first two tracks does make me want to check out her earlier stuff, however, and keep my eye out for more tasteful offerings in the near future.