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Eri Yamamoto: The Poet’s Touch

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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. —Eri Yamamoto
One of the many places to go if you want to listen to jazz in New York is Arthur's Tavern. The special thing about that place is not that it is a jazz bar, but the fact that the same piano trio has played there for nearly 20 years. The name of the trio is Eri Yamamoto Trio and together with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, Yamamoto has been refining the lyrical language of the piano trio.

Yamamoto's distinctive sound has also caught the ears of leading jazz pianists: Herbie Hancock has praised her, and when asked, Matthew Shipp generously agreed to share his perspective on her playing:

"When I first saw Eri it was in a bar on the corner of ave b and 7th street in New York City—it was full of yuppies and young professional types who are not jazz fans—her compositions and the level of the playing in her trio were so touching that she sometimes made a bar full of yuppies quiet and had them really listening to the music. Her touch and her compositions seemed to have a real emotional quality to them and never seemed to be school jazz [she was attending the New School at the time I think] but she had qualities of a fully mature artist not a jazz student."

"I got to know her and was really glad to see she was really open minded and checking out a lot of different things. She also seemed to have a vision of where she wanted to go in her music and what she wanted to do with her trio musically. What really struck me about her though was the emotional quality of some of her compositions. That is something that cannot be faked—she really does have something to communicate and to say. Also she does not come at it like the average jazz pianist—for instance she had recorded "My Favorite Things" on one of her CDs—I asked her about it once and she claimed she had never even heard the Coltrane version—which I thought was funny but cool [from what I remember she does not take a McCoy approach on it] which is a refreshing way to go about it."

"Also she is the only pianist I've ever talked to that Tommy Flanagan was a major impetus to her [as great as Flanagan is most don't talk about him as a primary influence—and not sure if he is for Eri but hearing him really touched her]—she said something of that sort to me once—I don't know if she still sees it that way but that was a novel thing to hear and highlights the fact that the way she goes about every aspect of her business is slightly different than the usual which when it adds up makes her a distinct artist. She also has a poet's touch on the piano—which blends into the beautiful emotion quality of her compositions."

Steven Joerg has released many of Yamamoto's albums on his excellent AUM Fidelity label and in the liner notes for the album Duologue (AUM Fidelity, 2008), he describes the experience of hearing her music:

"I first heard Eri Yamamoto play at Avenue B Social Club in New York's East Village, a spot long since gone that was quite special in its time. Eri had recently moved to New York from Japan. A classically trained piano prodigee, she had initially come here just to visit her sister, but after hearing Tommy Flanagan perform in a trio in Central Park, Eri had a momentous revelation that her future would be with jazz. Her regular appearances at the Social Club were the result of taking teacher Reggie Workman's supreme advice to "get a steady working gig." Hearing her play then, it was evident that her passion had been ignited, that her devotion to learning was pure, and that the musical gifts which would allow her to add to the stream of jazz beauty were plentiful."

"Good things circle back to reward anew in an outwardly radiating continuum. When William Parker came to record his first album of compositions for piano trio, he chose Eri to occupy that seat (Luc's Lantern in 2005). Many years having past since first, I next heard Eri perform live in January 2006 when she joined the William Parker Quartet for a performance at The Stone in New York's ever-changing East Village. She had laid into the grooves with authority and accentuated them with giving flourishes—fully engaged with the music and completely holding her own in the company of this remarkable band. Performances in Italy with William's Raining On The Moon ensemble followed, resulting in his decision to add her to that band."

At this point, Eri Yamamoto is still playing with William Parker and has built an impressive body of work with her trio. Her most recent album is called Life (AUM Fidelity, 2016), and Yamamoto agreed to answer some questions about her own musical life.

All About Jazz: Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?

Eri Yamamoto: I was born in Osaka, but moved to Kyoto when I was ten. 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 or 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.

AAJ: When did you first start playing an instrument? Did you take any lessons?

EY: 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.

I went to a music high school in Shiga, near Kyoto, and besides piano lessons I played viola in the orchestra. I also studied voice, singing Italian songs. Playing the viola has helped my understanding of the bass as an instrument, but hasn't affected my composing so greatly. Most of the time my music comes out through playing piano or just singing.

AAJ: How did music come into your life? Did you grow up in a family with a lot of music?

EY: 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 Ashkenazy (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.

AAJ: I've heard that pianist Tommy Flanagan played a role in your decision to move to New York. What happened?

EY: 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. My first three albums are self-released, then I happened to meet Steven Joerg at my gigs at Avenue B social club. Since then, I've released my six leader albums through the Aum Fidelity label. I've also been performing and recording with William Parker. He is one of the most inspiring human beings. I've been enjoying our collaboration, also he shows me how to be sincere to music, people and life.

AAJ: Your records on AUM Fidelity, especially your trio recordings with drummer Ikuo Takeuchi and bassist David Ambrosio, form a distinctive body of work. What is it about the trio that fascinates you?

EY: 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.

AAJ: How would you describe the communication in the trio and the experience of playing with musicians like bassist William Parker and drummers Hamid Drake and Federico Ughi?

EY: 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.

AAJ: Going back to the trio. You have been together for a long time and you are still playing at Athur's Tavern.

EY: My trio with Dave Ambrosio on bass and Ikuo Takeuchi on drums has been together for more than ten years. At Arthur's Tavern, we've been playing every weekend for nearly 20 years. The owners liked our music.

AAJ: Is it all original music when you play at Arthur's Tavern?

EY: We play our original music. Acoustic piano trio playing original music for 20 years, I believe we are the only trio in New York City (doing that). (It) definitely helps to develop our own sound. I feel very fortunate about it.

AAJ: How would you describe the process you have been through with the trio?

EY: For me the process of composing, playing, and recording, has been the same for many years. I try to write tunes that capture a moment, whether an experience of nature or a busy city street, or based on an experience on my travels. When Dave, Ikuo, and I play or record, we try to bring the tune to life, as a band. Maybe as the years have gone by, we've gotten a little deeper into our own sound and identity. For me that is a good feeling.

AAJ: Speaking of good feelings. What kind of music have you listened to yourself?

EY: I was studying classical music, but in Kyoto, I was surrounded by traditional Japanese music with traditional instruments. I (also) especially liked British rock music and world music.
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