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Makiko Hirabayashi may be the ideal emblem of today's multicultural jazz musician, caught in a web of influences. Born in Tokyo and educated in Boston, Hirabayashi is now a major pianist in Denmark, where she resides. Her debut album signals this globalism, presenting her with two top-notch Danish players on her own compositions.
Makiko showcases a careful choice of tones and sounds, all of which add up to a common texture: cloudy, occasionally mystifying, and most frequently somber. "Camel Ride" bears a certain resemblance to the work of Brad Mehldau, in Hirabayashi's use of classical harmonies in a minor palette. The rhythmic elements, however, seem entirely original, and the eccentric play that the bass and drums are allowed, make it all the more intriguing.
However, at other times, the pianist's emphasis on a darker impressionism seems somehow unsatisfactory. "Clouds of Mt. Blanc" opens with rich, murky chords that are well complemented by Marilyn Mazur's percussion; but once the form opens up it lacks movement, stagnating on just a couple minor concepts for too long.
One of the peculiarities of Makiko is the album's arc. After a faltering beginning, the disc gets stronger the further one proceeds into it. The finest of the ten tracks are buried in the middle. As it seems, Hirabayashi has to wade through the less memorable of her compositions to reach the interest and excitement of "Camel Ride," "City Murmur," and "My Cherry Tree."
Hirabayashi's compositions can be evocative, with a strong atmospheric pull towards certain moods. However, the songs are hard to imagine in another's hands: they lack the melodic interest necessary to give them life beyond their composer. Most of Makiko is not memorable in the way of great jazz standards. These songs flutter briefly and draw a listener in, but without a lasting power.
The potential for a higher order of composition is here, though. "Waves" fully demonstrates Hirabayashi's abilities, combining moods with remarkable grace. The pianist's melodies vacillate between an articulated series of notes that draw from the reductionist scales of the Far East, and esoteric, almost sinister lines. Underneath these voices, Mazur provides a range of peculiar and unearthly percussive effects, building until the dreamlike vision of the song seems to lose itself, gradually, in its own strangeness.
A composition like this one moves far past the expected and well-trodden ground that Hirabayashi elsewhere employs. As she further develops her melodies in future recordings, she will have the potential to chart very profound new territory.
Track Listing: Clouds over Mt. Blanc; Asymmetric Rainbow; Waves; First Flight; Camel Ride; City Murmur; Midnight Bells; My Cherry Tree; Orchids; Epilogue.