Pianist's art thrives on Eastern roots

Special to The Times

Japan has long been a favorite destination for American jazz artists, largely because of the country's high level of musical awareness and receptivity. Which may explain why Japan also has produced many of its own fine jazz artists, including pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Curiously, the pianist who is perhaps best known to Japanese audiences, Yosuke Yamashita, has had minimal visibility among American jazz fans. A performance at the Japanese American National Museum on Tuesday afforded a rare opportunity to hear this gifted player in action.

He's been described as "a hurricane on the piano" and as a disciple of Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk, but Yamashita's music was considerably more difficult to define Tuesday. His playing revealed both bombast and serenity, piquant humor and an empathic link with traditionalism.

The opening half of the concert was performed by a trio, with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan akLaff joining the pianist in a group of original Yamashita works and a recasting of a popular children's song. With a decade and a half of working together, the trio played with predictably smooth efficiency.

Yamashita's solos were amalgams of strikingly different elements -- fleet right-hand, bop-tinged melodies alternating with lush, Bill Evans-like harmonies and sudden bursts of sound up and down the keyboard.

But it was in the second half that the essential aspects of Yamashita's art finally emerged. With the arrival onstage of traditional Japanese bamboo-flute player Meisho Tosha and percussionist-singer Kiyohiko Semba, the music came alive.

The opening selection, "Ran-Byoshi" (Disordered Beats), was a stunning free improvisation blending patterns of sounds and silences with subtle jazz inferences. Other numbers, featuring Semba's mixture of musical whimsy and virtuosity and Tosha's passionate sounds, offered tempting glimpses of Japanese jazz springing from its own cultural roots.

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