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

Karl Ackermann By

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Yamamoto began studying piano at the age of three, later adding viola and voice to her formal training. She was composing at the age of five and later studied composition and music education at the University of Shiga. In 2017 I interviewed Ms. Yamamoto more at length and she described her early life in Japan; it is telling that the sound, silence, and the visual aspects of her world share equal footing. "I was born in Osaka, but moved to Kyoto when I was 10. So, I have more memories of Kyoto. It's a good mixture of city life, surrounded by nature. Since Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan, there are so many temples and shrines. When I was tired of studying, of practicing, I would go to temples. They have huge gardens that are so quiet -you don't hear anything. People in Kyoto are pretty laid-back, and speak slowly, with their own sense of humor. The food is excellent, I think among the best in Japan." I asked about the transition to the New York jazz scene and she explained the whirlwind of events that changed her life so quickly and dramatically. "In 1995, when I was still living in Kyoto, I visited my sister in Manhattan, and since I was here in New York, I wanted to listen to jazz. We saw Tommy Flanagan's trio at Tavern on the Green, and I was so moved that after the set, I said to Tommy: 'I want to be like you in the future. What should I do?' He answered, 'If you want to be a jazz musician, you've got to come to New York.' The following month, I left my grad school program in composition, and moved to New York City. I was excited to be here, and I didn't have time to get scared. I was very fortunate, because the first week I found Mal Waldron's name in the Village Voice. He was playing at Sweet Basil, and he introduced me to the bassist Reggie Workman, who brought me into the New School to study jazz. While I was at the New School, I started playing a regular trio gig at the Avenue B Social Club in the East Village, and I met Matthew Shipp and several other great musicians."

Yamamoto explained how the piano—and composing—have been extensions of her life from near the beginning. Her sensory acuity again figures deeply into her love of the instrument. "I started taking piano lessons when I was three, because all of my friends were also taking lessons -in Yamaha group classes. I loved playing, as it was just 'piano and me time.' When I was eight, Osaka University of Music had a wonderful prep program, and I was the youngest. I learned sight-reading, dictation, singing, and harmony -all the foundations of music. Around that time, I started writing my own music. Around age ten, I had a wonderful teacher who was an accomplished classical pianist, and I studied with her all through high school. Early on it was all classical music, and my mom was very supportive. From the time I was eight, she bought me the best seats to see the best musicians, such as Berlin Philharmonic and Vladimir Ashkenazi (who was one of my favorite pianists and conductors.) I was so small that the seat seemed big to me, and I was surrounded by adults. I felt the vibration of the music, and also felt the excitement of live music happening in the moment."

As a trio leader, Yamamoto leans toward an animated blend of improvisation and structure, sometimes allowing Ambrosio and Takeuchi to direct the improvisational flow before jumping back in. I asked if she felt that to be an accurate description of her live trio playing and, if she has a preference for lyrical jazz or more open improvisation? Her answer is unsurprisingly Zen-like: "I love everything, regarding trio playing. I don't have an idea of how the music should sound or go, but just let it happen. I like the triangle shape, and that's what the trio is to me, three equal partners." As to adjusting to side-playing in more free-jazz oriented settings of Parker, Drake and Ughi, she responds: "I don't change anything as a player, when playing with these musicians, as my own music has a lot of open-ended tunes where we play free, not having to follow a particular form or chord progression. William, Hamid, and Federico are all lyrical musicians."

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