Tomoko Omura: Branches Vol. 1

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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Tomoko Omura: Branches Vol. 1

Violinists come in many shapes, colors and sizes. In jazz, there are those who bridge the gap between classical music and a more improvised repertoire seamlessly, as seen with pioneers such as American avant-gardist Mark Feldman. There are others who go about their craft with a more rootsy approach to the improvised music tradition—as heard with virtuosos like Regina Carter. And then of course there's everything in between, from old guard veterans like Stephane Grappelli (also known as "the grandfather" among jazz violinists) to fusion pioneers of the caliber Jean-Luc Ponty's. Lastly, but surely not "leastly," there are natural successors like Japanese violinist Tomoko Omura, who bring all these past authors of the violin's role in jazz together, and construct an independent, distinctive style out of their teachings. In terms of shape and size, Omura plays a unique 5-string violin, an instrument with an expanded range that she exploits expertly. The occasional muscular spark and rapid rhythmic backdrop in Omura's charts are reminiscent of Ponty, but even he didn't indulge the jazzier side of fusion the way Omura does on her fourth outing as a leader, Branches Vol. 1.

Originally from Shizuoka, Japan, Omura began playing jazz while studying at Yokohama National University, before relocating to Boston, where she studied on a scholarship and soon released her self-produced debut record Visions (2008). A New Yorker since 2010, Omura has three albums under her belt and has made a name for herself as a prolific sidewoman, recording with contemporary New York innovators, such as Camila Meza and Fabian Almazan. Building on the sonic concept Omura introduced on 2015's Roots (Inner Circle Music), Branches, the first of two volumes, sees the violinist returning to her heritage by musically reimagining Japanese folk tales and revisiting a popular Japanese song as well as...

"Moonlight in Vermont." The sole standard of the six-track album opens the set with polymetric ease, spawned by guitar fuzz and violin screeching to rhythmically driven drums and bass patterns. It isn't hard to make out the original tune, due to its distinctive melodic hook—everything else about a typical standard rendition however stays absent. Motifs and fragments are spread across the instruments, progressions are reharmonized and instead of comfortable swing, a brisk six-time shares the floor with a slower four-feel—giving the musicians more ambiguity to play with. Rhythmically, the arrangement builds on a Haiku—the traditional Japanese three-phrase poem, which coincidentally can be found within the lyrics of "Moonlight in Vermont."

A slow and menacing modal vamp counted in 12, "Three Magic Charms" builds momentum when its harmonic pace quickens and finally climaxes in a chorus-constituting ostinato. Omura's violin playing is at its most lyrical here, and her wistful solos are minimally accompanied by her sidemen, who choose patience over imposition. The same can't be said for "The Revenge of The Rabbit." A straight groove with a syncopated emphasis before the fourth beat, the song finds the band locked together in a strapping unit, propelling each other and the tune forward with gusto. Glenn Zaleski, who already handled the keys on Omura's last quintet endeavor, follows up Omura's inquisitive violin with a firm solo on top of a couple of intertwined bars shared through question and answer solos between the two. The real highlight however follows immediately after Zaleski's turn, when guitarist Jeff Miles manipulates his strings via effect pedal and goes out on a psychedelic limb— demonstrating a modernized version of the kind of freewheeling spirit '70s fusion bands had to offer.

Omura and her quintet find an elegant balance between loose band interplay and strictly composed sequences, giving each other enough space for spontaneity while keeping in mind the overall dynamic arcs. The R & B-immersed ballad "Return To The Moon" is a well sequenced break in the lively musical potpourri, slowing things down to let the musicians show off their calmer temperaments, before "Konomichi," based on the Kosaku Yamada-authored Japanese folk song of the same name, ends the set on a cheerful note. Like the opener, Omura's interpretation of "Konomichi" only utilizes the bare minimum of its melodic template and roams free in regard to everything else. Miles is given much room to venture in on his own throughout the album and receives carte blanche on the closer, demonstrating no shortage of distortion and phaser effects by switching into full overdrive.

With Branches Vol. 1, Omura offers a compact yet diverse look into her musical world, where Japanese melodies are given a Western frame to which she and her sidemen uncoil in an elegant manner. The elegance however doesn't come at the cost of a certain youthful candor, which Omura continues to cultivate vivaciously and with sincerity.

Track Listing

Moonlight In Vermont; Three Magic Charms; The Revenge Of The Rabbit; Return To The Moon - Intro; Return To The Moon; Konomichi.


Tomoko Omura: violin; Jeff Miles: guitar; Glenn Zaleski: piano; Pablo Menares: bass; Jay Sawyer: drums.

Album information

Title: Branches Vol. 1 | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Outside in Music

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