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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.

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