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Big in Japan, Part 2: Osaka & the Eri Yamamoto Connection

Karl Ackermann By

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In 1945, near the end of the Pacific theater of WWII, a U.S. bombing mission burned down Chigusa but it re-opened in the port city of Yokohama, closer to Tokyo, and it became a hangout for future stars such as pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and trumpeter Terumasa Hino. Jazz in Osaka survived, sometimes tucked away in small neighborhoods that came through the war years with their rickety wooden buildings and tea houses intact. One such district is Nakazakicho -literally and figuratively on the other side of the Japan Railway tracks. In this seemingly misplaced neighborhood with its slight alleyways and lack of signage, one can find the club Noon directly under the elevated tracks, and Taiyo No To Café nearby. Neither club caters strictly to jazz anymore but others in the area, such as Comodo Bar and Cafe Malacca have more robust calendars. Deeper into the city, and in its Umeda business district, there is a higher concentration of jazz clubs than anywhere else in the country. Original Dixieland Jazz Club of Osaka, Meursault 2nd Club, Live BAR, Azul, Rhythm & Kushikatsu Agatta, Cafe Bourrée, New Suntory 5, Red & Blue, Bunk Johnson, Long Walk Coffee, Royal Horse, and Bēsuontoppu are among the most popular spots in the city. Like many U.S. jazz venues, some are restaurants with music, others, jazz clubs with food.

Eri Yamamoto

Osaka is considered the origin of Japanese jazz and the birthplace of dozens of nationally well-known musicians, though the majority come from the highly-manufactured ranks of J-pop—a cross between pop music and disco. Among the city's jazz artists few have a base outside the region. A notable exception is pianist and composer Eri Yamamoto. I first met the Osaka native when her trio was in the early days of their long—and ongoing—engagement at Arthur's Tavern in New York's West Village. The renowned venue has been home for the trio since 2000, originally with John Davis, and then Alan Hampton on bass. David Ambrosio has been bassist for more than ten years and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi has been with Yamamoto from the beginning. He appeared on her first trio recording Up & Coming (Jane Street Records, 2001). The remarkably stable group speaks to Yamamoto's qualities as a leader. As a collaborator, she has worked with creative music's finest talents, including William Parker, Daniel Carter, Hamid Drake and Federico Ughi. She has performed on six continents and has taught on four.

Stage seating at Arthur's Tavern is literally that; a patron could inadvertently step on the drum pedal if not careful. It was the early show, the weather was bad, and patrons were slow to trickle in, none of which deterred the pianist/composer from completely immersing herself in the moment. She was clearly in her element on a stage that had once hosted legends such as Charlie Parker and Roy Hargrove. During the break in the first set, Ms. Yamamoto joined us for a brief conversation that focused on the prelude to her arrival in New York in 1995. In particular, she had a successful career teaching music in Japan, a country that reveres its educators and holds them in high esteem. Her arrival in New York and her subsequent exposure to the live jazz scene, was an instant game changer for the classically trained musician.

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