Manami Morita: When Skies Are Grey (2012)
Japanese pianist Manami Morita has made a name for herself in Boston since arriving in 2006 to study at Berklee College of Music. Whether solo, in guitarist Colin Cannon's quartet or leading her own trio, Morita's impressive technique harnesses energy and finesse in equal measure, qualities to the fore on her fourth release as leader. Morita doesn't sacrifice melody for virtuosity either, though there are plenty of fireworks in these vibrant arrangements. Morita, moreover, seems to embrace greater use of space since her bold debut Colors (Self Produced, 2009), and thisallied to the room she gives the other musiciansmakes for music that grooves yet breathes.
A minimalist, solo piano rendition of "What a Wonderful World" has a lulling effect prior to the shifting dynamics of "Yellow Bunny Dance," where alto saxophonist Jeremy Vovcsko's sinewy, melodic lines are underpinned by Evgeny Lebedev's simmering organ and drummer Thomas Hartman's propulsive rhythms. Morita and electric bassist Zak Croxall's vamp accompanies Hartman's punchy, yet tightly controlled solo, before Vovcsko restates the head. By contrast, the gentle reverie of "Tiny Shiny Stars" features seductive melodic motifs and percussionist Keita Ogawa's deft accents. Morita's slowly repeating melody dictates the dreamy rhythm, with acoustic bassist Petros Klampanis' lyrical solo overtly led by his wordless singing.
"Unpredicted" is an arresting arrangement for four-piece string quartet and piano, though its serene beauty suggests greater film-score ambience than Morita's classical background. At two minutes, a lone violin seamlessly leads piano and string quartetjoined by rhythm section---into pianist/bandleader Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks." Morita's solo builds gradually, driven by the quietly pulsating rhythm section, with her momentum swinging between freewheeling glissandos and more lyrical flights. "Tamayakul" is part Scott Joplin rag and part Latin-inspired, an enjoyable romp serving as a vehicle for Morita and Hartman's respective muscle-flexing.
Colin Cannon's cantering acoustic guitar leads the intro on "Cold Bowl of Soup," with Morita's wonderfully catchy melody at the heart of the number. Croxall solos over acoustic guitar and shuffling drums before Morita's melody returns to carry the tune home. The episodic "3235" is a jazz-classical hybrid with Morita most impressive, whether executing tumbling lines or meditating gracefully at a slower tempo. Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird" is given a truly fresh lick of paint in an arrangement that goes from soulful Ray Charles-esque gospel mode to joyous celebration, where piano, saxophone, violin, trumpet and chanting combine in a stirring finale.
Morita's left-field take on "You are my Sunshine" throws devilish feedback effects, like howling wind, at the pianist's bluesy reading of the melody. Then, in time warp effect, Morita switches to swing evocative of stride pianist James P. Johnson's ragtime jazz. A little 1930s nostalgia isn't out of place, as Morita's vocabulary clearly draws from myriad sources while her voice is authentically her own.
Morita's composing and arranging skills have gained ground alongside her outstanding technical ability on this mature yet always accessible work. It's the best indication yet that Morita is a potential star in the making.
Track Listing: What a Wonderful World; Yellow Bunny Dance; Tiny Shiny Stars; Unpredicted; The Peacocks; Tamayakul; Cold Bowl of Soup; 3235; Blackbird; You are my Sunshine.
Personnel: Manami Morita: piano, vibraphone, glockenspiel; Evgeny Lebedev: organ; Colin Cannon; guitar; Petros Klampanis: acoustic bass; Zak Croxall: electric bass; Keita Ogawa: percussion; Thomas Hartman: drums; Jeremy Vovcsko: alto saxophone; Michael Sinicropi: trumpet; Tomoko Omura: violin; Mary Beth Alexander: violin; Jeanie Lee: viola; Joy Stuhr: cello.
Record Label: Self Produced