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Pianist Toru Dodo and Trio at Cleopatra's Needle, NYC

AAJ Staff By

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He finds tremendous inspiration in Art Tatum. 'He had such advanced harmony... he was so modern.'
Toru Dodo
Cleopatra's Needle
New York, New York
October 26, 2008

Japanese pianist Toru Dodo and his trio are the featured act on Sunday nights at Cleopatra's Needle, 92nd and Broadway, New York City. Dodo plays a full set, then hosts the Sunday night jam. His trio usually has bassist Joseph Lapore, but on this occasion there was a new face on bass, Yoshi Waki, along with regular drummer Rodney Green. Dodo has a very interesting style, with sometimes spiky right hand figures and full, occasionally dissonant chords in the left hand. He's also a performer who's conscious of a group's visual appearance on stage: he wore a brown pullover and black jacket, and the drummer, joining him in dispensing with a shirt, wore a brown sweater.

The trio's first number was a long version of John Lennon's "Julia" from The Beatles White Album (EMI, 1968). Next was "Aruba Bura," slightly classical-sounding with some wide melodic leaps. The tune is named for the club Aruba in Manhattan where Dodo sometimes plays. The third tune was entitled "My Love Song": there was a lengthy bass solo supported by piano chords, the bassist reading sheet music and playing with long, precise fingers. Dodo frequently played a rush of notes that would then wind up leading to a single clear point.

"All The Things You Are" followed—the Jerome Kern classic. The piano stated the melody over dissonant chords with "open"-sounding voicings. At the drums, Green is a dramatic performer, hitting the skins in a deliberate manner. There was a high flurry of piano notes in the right hand, then the bassist came in like Mingus on the same tune at the famous Massey Hall concert also featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, once released as The Greatest Jazz Concert of All Time and more recently as Jazz At Massey Hall (Debut/OJC, 1953/1991) and Complete Jazz at Massey Hall (Jazz Factory, 2004). Some classical decoration from Dodo led to the next tune of the set, appropriately enough, given the season, Vernon Duke's "Autumn In New York," which is also a track on Dodo's second album, Dodo2 (Jazz City Spirit, 2002).

Green began the tune by playing on only cymbals, then quietly introduced brushes and snare. (Meanwhile the owner of the restaurant came up from the back room carrying the double-bass case, and stuffed the offending material under the piano! Must make room for more customers!)

It was time to close the set: "The last piece is my latest composition. I hope you enjoy it," the pianist announced. A catchy melodic figure launched the piece, and Dodo began to sound like no less than a cross between Bud Powell and Dave Brubeck. That was the set, but the variety of music presented meant that here was essentially a complete formal performance by the trio, plus a jam session still to come.

Before taking the stand once again, Dodo generously shared some personal information. Talking about his influences, the pianist says that classical music is "my home," citing classical pianist Maurizio Pollini as his hero. Concerning jazz pianists, he finds tremendous inspiration in Art Tatum: "He had such advanced harmony. He was so modern," says Dodo. He also likes Oscar Petersen.

There are signs of the classical influence in his interpretations. Note clusters and precise figures proliferate, as for example in "My Love Song." In addition, some of the titles of Dodo's tunes indicate that classical music is not far from his thoughts: his most recent American album release Dodo 3 (Jazz City Spirit, 2007) has a track entitled "Arabesque," and another called "Giacomo Swing"—the Giacomo is opera composer Giacomo Puccini. And yet, Puccini, who died in 1924, has a place in jazz in any event, as a melody he wrote was adopted by a Tin Pan Alley songwriter to write the popular jazz hit "Avalon" (recorded by Al Jolson and later Benny Goodman, etc): Puccini sued and won!

As for "Arabesque," French composer Debussy is the composer of the well-known "Deux Arabesques"; this writer, on hearing it for the very first time, noticed that a brief portion seemed identical to the sound of Oscar Petersen (who was yet to record for another fifty years!) It's an eye-opener to find a jazz pianist so in touch with this heritage. Dodo's music is usually presented in a trio context, though a Berklee orchestra can be seen playing an interesting version (see below) of the title track from Dodo's first album Melancholy Cats (Jazz City Spirit, 1999).

The title "Melancholy Cats" itself indicates a different take on music in general. On occasion, Dodo also employs word play in the titles to the tunes. For example, the first track on Dodo's album Toru Dodo 3 is "R Or B." I asked whether the title was a pun on "R and B. "Yes!" He likes to experiment with the sound of language, and does so with obvious humor. It's clearly an extra source of inspiration for his writing, a further example of his invention. Another example is a track on Dodo 3 called "Brush Pitch": how can a brush have pitch? Presumably it is a drummer's brush, but you don't play the brush itself: it can't have a pitch of itself. Maybe if you struck the brush with the drum!

Further invention and word play by a creative performer with a Zen-like sense of humor and paradox. His latest (and fourth) album, Do You Like Capuccino? (Jazz City Spirit, 1999), has just been released in Japan. An album with a provocative title usually indicates thought-provoking music: those who are fortunate enough to catch him live will no doubt discover one of the more engaging music-makers on today's jazz scene.

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