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Junko Onishi: Baroque

Keith Henry Brown By

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The world has been a slightly less happy place since Junko Onishi's last record.

After establishing herself as one of the finest young jazz pianists around with her debut, Wow (EMI, 1993), Onishi released a string of fine Blue Note recordings: Live At The Village Vanguard Volume 1 and Volume 2 (both 1994); the superb Cruisin' (1994), featuring her majestic "Eulogia"; and Piano Quintet Suite (1995).

With Fragile (Blue Note, 1999)—a virtual rock covers album that took on Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Righteous Brothers—Onishi's recorded output all but vanished in the U.S., while the pianist reportedly released a number of CDs in Japan.

Now on Verve, Onishi is back with another unpredictable but typically excellent effort. A more lavish-sounding record than the rock n' raw Fragile, Baroque gives Onishi the opportunity to showcase her formidable compositional and arranging skills.

Working with durable and longtime band members Rodney Whitaker and Reginald Veal, (bass), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), and fellow former Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra band mate Herlin Riley (drums)—along with stellar guests Nicholas Payton (trumpet) and woodwind/reed phenom James CarterBaroque is Onishi's show, yet every musician shines brightly. Riley and Gordon solo engagingly in avant-garde fashion on the album's obvious highlight, "The Three Penny Opera," which, according to the liners, features a piano solo based a musical score by Onishi's mentor and friend, the great Jaki Byard. This Onishi original is both a surprise and a revelation, with all the musicians allowed to stretch more than on her previous recordings.

As evidenced by the album's opener, "Tutti," Onishi's style has now allowed for a more improvisational approach. In some of her earlier records, her classical training sometimes kept things rather tight. But on numbers like bassist Charles Mingus' notoriously difficult "Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters," the pianist seems to have taken a page from the composer's book, allowing her seasoned fellow musicians room to interpret more freely.

Onishi gives herself two beautiful unaccompanied piano showcases on Baroque: Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and Eubie Blake's "Memories of You." Both are fresh takes, technically impressive, and inventive without fussiness.

Baroque's expansiveness and variety make for what could be Onishi's most purely entertaining CD to date.

Track Listing: Tutti; The The Mother's (Where Johnny Is); The Threepenny Opera; Stardust; Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters; Flamingo.

Personnel: Junko Onishi : piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Reginald Veal: bass; Wycliffe Gordon: trombone; Herlin Riley: drums; Nicholas Payton: trumpet; James Carter: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, flute; Roland Guerrero: congas.

Title: Baroque | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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