pianist, who is in her early 30s, was sitting in her Hell's Kitchen
apartment on a recent Saturday morning. She was still excited about the
evening before, when a full house of European tourists had sat in rapt
attention during the performance. And she had other reasons to feel
cheerful. The week before was spent in Milan, where Ms. Yamamoto
appeared as part of a soulful sextet led by the indefatigable bassist
William Parker. And there was her new album, "Redwoods," a sparkling
trio session that complements a release from earlier this summer,
"Duologue." Both were released on the Brooklyn-based label AUM Fidelity.
presents a cycle of nature-inspired compositions that emphasize the
melodic mesh of a working band (with bassist David Ambrosio
and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi),
"Duologue" is a departure, a collection of improvisatory duets among
Ms. Yamamoto and Mr. Parker, the drummers Hamid Drake and Federico
Ughi, and the saxophonist Daniel Carter.
"I had a dream," Ms.
Yamamoto said. "It was a very clear dream. I was recording a duo album
with these musicians. I woke up and thought, 'That's perfect.'" She had
dreamt up specific melodies for each musician and wrote them down
immediately. With the songs in tow, Ms. Yamamoto contacted the producer
Steven Joerg, whose AUM Fidelity label released numerous albums by Mr.
Parker's group, including the 2008 "Corn Meal Dance" with Ms. Yamamoto
"To me, William's
music is very natural," she said of the kaleidoscopic composer, with
whom she has toured the past two years. "I didn't feel any difference
between that and what I've been doing. I don't feel like I'm writing
music 'for jazz.' It's been the same since I was little."
Trained in classical
music, Ms. Yamamoto decided while in college to become a teacher. The
native of Osaka, Japan, might still be doing that if not for an
invitation, 13 years ago, to visit her sister in Manhattan.
"I had no idea about
jazz," she said. Picking a show at random from the Village Voice, the
sisters went to Tavern on the Green to see the pianist Tommy Flanagan.
Ms. Yamamoto was disturbed to see that the great pianist, who died in
2001, needed assistance to reach to the bandstand.
"I thought, 'Oh my
gosh. I paid $40 to see that old guy?' But once he started playing, it
was very strong. That moment, I knew I wanted to be like him."
Flanagan told Ms.
Yamamoto that if she intended to play jazz she had to move to New York.
A few months later she did. After meeting the bassist Reggie Workman,
Ms. Yamamoto enrolled for the next three years at the New School, where
he taught. She immersed herself in the study of Bud Powell and other
canonical figures, but it took a while for the student to gain enough
self-confidence to begin playing her own music in public.
That changed in 1996
when she saw Paul Bley lead a trio, with the drummer Paul Motian and
bassist Gary Peacock, at the Knitting Factory. She heard in the group's
language, with its sources in the freer forms that began emerging in
the late 1950s, a way to unlock her own voice.
"I was very
relieved," she said. "I knew I wasn't going to be a musician like Bud
Powell. His life was so different from how I'd grown up. But when I
heard this trio, the music reminded me of my own roots. I didn't have
to be the next Bud Powell fake. I could play what I wanted."
Ms. Yamamoto's jazz
career began in earnest in 1997, when she picked up a regular gig at
the Avenue B Social Club. The short-lived East Village bar was a
favorite after-hours hangout for several generations of Lower East Side
avant-garde musicians, literary types, artists, deadbeats, couples who
would slip downstairs to make out, and drug addicts too stoned to snap
out of their spells: an ideal audience for a novice.
"I saw her many times
get a bar full of yuppies to get quiet and actually listen," the
pianist Matthew Shipp said. Mr. Shipp, whose often
aggressive and deconstructive style might seem the opposite of Ms.
Yamamoto's, first heard her at Avenue B and became an ardent booster,
eventually bringing her to the attention of his record label, Thirsty
"What struck me about
her playing was that it had heart and soul and actually moved me, which
is so unusual for a 'jazz student.' They're
usually caught up in chords and scales. But somehow she had already
gotten to the artist part of this."
Mr. Shipp also
offered advice to the aspiring pianist. "He told me, 'Move your finger
a half-step and you might find a different world,'" Ms. Yamamoto said.
There was no looking
back. She has since developed a style that is laced with subtle colors
that can rise as she blends notes in unexpected ways. The style rewards
close attention. And as a seasoned bar player, Ms. Yamamoto knows how
to plant flowers in the dustbin.
"My voicing is not
traditional at all," she said. "If I can hear a melody, I feel good."
By STEVE DOLLAR