by Ian Mann
February 21, 2021
Neatly straddling the divide between the mainstream and the contemporary Miwa’s music is capable of reaching out to a broad jazz listenership. This is the sound of a band having “serious fun”.
Yoko Miwa Trio
“Songs of Joy”
(Ubuntu Music UBU0057)
Yoko Miwa – piano, Scott Goulding – drums, Will Slater – acoustic bass
Brad Barrett – acoustic bass (track 11)
Yoko Miwa is a Japanese born pianist and composer, now based in the USA.
She began her career under the auspices of Japanese organist and club owner Minoru Ozone, playing at his night club and teaching at his music school. Both facilities were destroyed in the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and Miwa moved on to study at the Koyo Conservatory at Kobe.
She subsequently won first prize in a scholarship competition to attend the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston and stayed on in America, establishing herself on the jazz scene in Boston and the US as a whole. She currently holds a professorship in Berklee’s piano department.
Since making her recorded début in 2000 Miwa has recorded a total of eight albums, all primarily in the piano trio format, prior to this current release and has appeared at many of America’s leading jazz venues and festivals. Artists with whom she has performed include Sheila Jordan, Jazzmeia Horn, Slide Hampton, Arturo Sandoval, George Garzone, Jon Faddis, Jerry Bergonzi, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kevin Mahogany, John Lockwood and Johnathan Blake.
Originally trained as a classical musician Miwa’s talents have been endorsed by no less an authority than the great Ahmad Jamal.
Miwa’s latest release has a loosely conceptual overall theme and is partly a product of the Covid-19 lockdown as the pianist explains in her album liner notes;
“Songs of Joy refers to the overall feeling of the songs on this album. My recordings and performances always feature eclectic contrasts of musical styles and this recording is no exception. The difference is I tried to push the envelope much more this time, resulting in each song having a very different emotion. I made it my mission to connect directly with the listener in each song that I played, to go directly to their soul and touch their heart. The one emotion that unites all the songs is one of JOY”.
“When the pandemic started I decided I would compose every day and as a result came up with five new original compositions which are all included here. I also recorded six songs composed by other musicians but in doing so I chose them very carefully to fit in with the feeling of the album. I specifically chose the songs because of their meaning to me and when I performed them I made them, as always, my own. The one thing I tried to keep intact though was the original emotion of the song and why it spoke so deeply to me. I put aside any agenda and listened carefully, letting the songs play themselves instead of inserting my ideas or trying to impress the listener with my own playing.
To me this album conveys just as many different emotions as it does contrasting styles of compositions. I drew my improvisations with inspirations that already existed in the songs and my hope is that you will hear the overwhelming feeling of JOY that I felt in making this music”.
The album features Miwa’s regular trio members Scott Goulding (drums) and Will Slater (acoustic bass), with Brad Barrett, another frequent collaborator, replacing Slater on the final track. The recording derives its title from the Billy Preston composition “Song Of Joy”, which represents one of the tracks on the album.
The recording commences with an arrangement of the Richie Havens song “Freedom”, which emerges from a crescendo of piano, drums and bowed bass. Eventually bass and drums strike up a rolling groove and we move into the main body of the song with Miwa combining power with dexterity to create a dramatic performance that emphasises the percussive qualities of the piano. Her dynamic low end, Tyner-esque rumblings lead into a drum feature for the excellent Goulding, her drummer of choice throughout her recording career. Slater flourishes the bow once more towards the close, adding even greater depth to an already admirably huge trio sound. It’s a rousing and attention grabbing opener.
Miwa’s own “Largo Desolata” follows, a lively combination of contemporary rhythms and Latin grooves featuring an expansive solo from Miwa that again demonstrates her highly impressive, classically honed, technical facility. Slater and Goulding provide understated, but suitably propulsive support, and Goulding is rewarded with a colourful drum feature in the tune’s closing stages.
Following these two high octane opening salvoes Miwa elects to slow things down a little with Billy Preston’s title track. Introduced by a passage of solo piano this gospel flavoured ballad gradually gathers momentum as the tune progresses with Goulding moving from brushes to sticks as the music requires.
The Miwa original “Small Talk” finds her diverting more towards the jazz mainstream with a gently swinging offering that features more fluent soloing from the leader, accompanied by the crisp, hard driving rhythm section. Miwa and Goulding then enjoy the opportunity of trading fours towards the end of the tune.
Also written by the leader “The Lonely Hours” commences with the duo of Miwa and Slater and later features the bassist with a delightfully melodic and highly dexterous solo. This is a genuine contemporary ballad, arguably closer in style to the European piano trio tradition than much of the rest of the record. Miwa’s expansive but lyrical solo draws readily upon her classical leanings.
Duke Jordan’s “No Problem” offers a highly effective contrast, representing another visit to the well of the American jazz tradition. Slater’s energetic bass and Goulding’s nimble and swinging drumming represent the perfect foil for Miwa’s ebullient piano soloing. Goulding also enjoys a series of colourful and vigorous drum breaks.
Miwa’s own “The Rainbirds” finds the trio journeying south to Brazil, its sunny bossa cadences providing soloing opportunities for both Miwa and bassist Slater. The latter delivers a highly agile pizzicato solo that makes effective use of the instrument’s upper registers, with much of Slater’s work sounding as if it’s concentrated around the bridge.
“Think Of One” finds Miwa exploring the compositional legacy of Thelonious Monk, placing a contemporary slant on the music, but still sounding authentically ‘Monk-ish’. In keeping with the overall theme of the album Miwa’s solo emphasises Monk’s quirky and impish musical humour, she sounds as if she’s having tremendous fun. Slater and Goulding are very much on the same wavelength and the performance includes effective features for both.
The final Miwa original s “Inside A Dream”, a beautiful contemporary ballad introduced by a brief passage of solo piano and featuring Goulding deploying brushes. The melodic qualities of Slater’s bass playing are again emphasised during the course of his solo, while Miwa is heard at her most lyrical.
Written by Tony Germaine the title of “Tony’s Blues” is self explanatory but the trio explore the piece in interesting ways, with Slater and Goulding providing an idiosyncratic but subtly swinging groove that allows Miwa the opportunity to stretch out at length, again sounding a little like the late, great McCoy Tyner. Slater delivers his final bass solo of the set, and signs off in impressive fashion. Goulding also enjoys a short feature behind the kit.
Barrett takes over the bass duties for the final piece, an arrangement of the Anne Bredon song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, famously covered in highly dramatic fashion by Led Zeppelin on their remarkable début album. Barrett plays the famous melody on bowed bass, accompanied by the leader’s piano and Goulding’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Barrett’s arco playing is atmospheric and highly effective and the piece is very much a feature for him until Miwa takes over for the riff based second section. The sound of the bow returns towards the close as Barrett stamps his identity on the piece once more. This performance is substantially different in style to much of the rest of the album and was presumably recorded at a separate session. It’s perhaps best regarded as a very welcome ‘bonus track’ but it’s also the longest piece on the album and for many listeners will represent the album highlight. Anyone who enjoyed Zeppelin’s version (upon which this arrangement is almost certainly based) will surely appreciate this striking jazz interpretation.
“Songs of Joy” represents an impressive statement from Miwa. The album title might suggest something frothy and inconsequential but the music offers far more than that as the trio embrace a range of styles, moods and dynamics. The “joy” comes from the obvious delight that they take in their music making, this is the sound of a band having “serious fun”.
Neatly straddling the divide between the mainstream and the contemporary Miwa’s music is capable of reaching out to a broad jazz listenership. As a pianist her technical ability is exceptional and she shines throughout this recording. She also impresses as a versatile and original composer.
Her long term collaborators, Goulding and Slater, offer impeccable support and the level of mutual rapport is excellent throughout, while the drummer and bassist also impress with their occasional solo contributions. Barrett then almost threatens to steal the show the show with his evocative arco playing on the Led Zep classic.
Its appearance on a British label should help to bring the exceptional talents of Yoko Miwa to the attention of UK jazz audiences. When international touring eventually returns let’s hope that she is able to bring her trio over to play some gigs on this side of ‘the pond’.
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