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Taeko Kunishima: Red Dragonfly

Dan McClenaghan By

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You always hear about the "sophomore jinx," referring to an artist's difficulty in coming up with a second recording that at least matches, and hopefully surpasses, his or her debut. That's seems more a problem in popular music, where the talent pool is considerably shallower than in the jazz world.

Japanese-born and now London-based pianist Taeko Kunishima suffers no sophomore jinx on her second outing, Red Dragonfly. Her debut, Space to Be... (33 Jazz, 2004), was an auspicious beginning and an engagingly lyrical set. Red Dragonfly turns things up a notch and reveals a leap in artistic growth.

Kunishima mixes Japanese themes with jazz modes and comes up with a distinctive and original sound. The opening title tune starts the show with a duo featuring Kunishima on piano and Clive Bell on the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. It's a subdued, haunting listening experience. The shakuhachi has a hollow, breathy sound, blowing like a gentle breeze over Kunishima's delicate accompaniment. Things get jazzier on "Misty Mountain" as the core quartet, including Russel Van Den Berg on soprano sax, delves into this inward-looking, pastoral number. "To Be Scolded" takes things up-tempo, with Van Den Berg on tenor sax, for a high-spirited jazz romp.

"The Moon Above the Ruined Castle" is listed as a Japanese folk song (Kunishima composed all the rest of the tunes), and it's the same piece that Thelonious Monk played on his Straight, No Chaser (Columbia, '67). It was listed there as "Japanese Folk Song (Kojo No Tsuki)," though Orrin Keepnews, in his liner notes to the '96 reissue, says it's actually a Japanese pop song from the thirties. But no matter. Monk's rambling, spirited sixteen-minute take on the tune was a highlight of that disc, and Kunishima's lighter, faster, more succinct approach here is the highlight of Red Dragonfly, with go-for-broke solos by her and saxophonist Van Den Berg, in front of a locked-in bass/drum rhythm, sounding like magic.

"Ink-Black Night" re-introduces the shakuhachi, drifting over a floating rhythm, and "Full of Moonlight" has an ominous feeling, explored in a more mainstream mode with Van Den Berg's throaty tenor sax.

Taeko Kunishima's artistry evolves with this new set; she proves herself one of the more interesting new voices in jazz with Red Dragonfly.

Track Listing: Red Dragonfly (duo); Misty Mountains; To Be Scolded; Cold winter; The Moon Above the Ruined Castle; Ink-Black Night; Night of the Hazy Moon; Tears in the rain; Full Moonlight; Red Dragonfly (band).

Personnel: Taeko Kunishima: piano; Russel Van Den Berg: saxophone; Jim Hart: drums; Richard Pryce: bass. Guest Artist: Clive Bell: shakuhachi.

Title: Red Dragonfly | Year Released: 2006

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