Ayako Shirasaki brings world-class jazz down to earth on Some Other Time. For this, her fifth album, the Japan-born and New York-based pianist is joined by bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Quincy Davis. That Shirasaki cut her teeth on the bebop greats—Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Bud Powell, to name but a few—should come as no surprise. Neither should the fact that, in her defining twenties, the beauties of Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Kenny Barron (her mentor at the Manhattan School of Music) would be just as influential in defining her current sound, a perfect admixture of both.
This being her first trio album in eight years, Shirasaki brings a wealth of maturation into the studio. “In that time my life has greatly changed by having two kids,” she tells me during a recent interview. “I’m not only a musician anymore but also a mother, wife, and teacher.” Shirasaki further acknowledges her children as having an effect on her playing: “I think that in dealing with small children everything has to be clear, natural, and easy for them to understand. These elements have changed my music a little bit. I have also become more openhearted since becoming a mother.”It’s an unenviable identity to inhabit in a male-dominated profession, but hearing her phenomenal rendition of “Oleo,” such labels cease to matter. This Sonny Rollins gem floats effortlessly from her fingertips with the punch of Chick Corea and the underlying elegance of Marc Copland.
Shirasaki is a cat with nine lives who imbues her playing with nods to various stages of jazz history. That said, she makes no pretentions about theme:“It’s funny, I never had any intension to make this album into a particular direction. I just followed my heart, and still the album developed a certain character.” And while some of that character comes from nods to the American Songbook, notably in the nostalgic hipness of “Long Ago and Far Away” (Jerome Kern) and her solo take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” (a mission statement if there ever was one), Shirasaki brings more than a rainbow’s worth of colors to this gallery of moods by way of her interpretive prowess. Whether in the vivid, classic sound of “April in Paris” (Vernon Duke) or the bluesy urbanity of “My Man’s Gone” (George Gershwin), a certain optimism persists, although perhaps nowhere more so than in “Hope.” This Lars Jansson tune proves just how positive jazz can become in the pianist’s hands. Shirasaki: “Music has an aspect to heal people’s heart when they’re down or stressed for any reason. Jazz has such power in energetic and beautiful ways to impart positive messages.”If we hear anything in this revelry, it is the confidence in Shirasaki’s step; a confidence born of love.
These are, of course, songs without words, and as such get to the heart of every melody without distraction. Such conviction comes from Shirasaki’s rigorous classical training, which through the prism of the piano trio format lends special focus. “I love playing solo,” Shirasaki notes, “as I can control all the sound, harmony, bass, and rhythms from beginning to end, but it can be lonely. The trio brings out individual colors and tasks. Interaction between the three brings the music to another level. I think the piano trio is a very strong unit for being ‘minimal.’”
Such are the hallmarks, too, of her own tunes. “Sunrise” connotes the luminosity of her craft to exponential degree. Its invigorations emote with a welcoming spirit, fitting like well-worn shoes. The improvising here may not be fierce, and is even a bit saccharine, but nevertheless balances touch and go with assurance. Corea again lurks in the staggered harmonies and independent hands of “3 Steps Forward,” throughout which the superb rhythm section is plush and omnipresent, of which the phrasing speaks to tasteful attunement all around. “Peace of Mind” is another optimistic slice of forward-thinking jazz. Sparkling highs in the right hand contrast beautifully with thumping bass, the latter of which has a remarkable solo, delicate yet forthright.
As an avid enka (Japanese popular folk) and traditional Japanese music listener, I was delighted to encounter on this album such spirited takes on Saburō Kitajima’s “Yosaku” and the children’s song “Antagata dokosa.” When asked about her inclusion of these particular tunes, Shirasaki discusses her experiences performing in Japan as one motivation. “Another reason is that simply I like to play these songs. ‘Antagata dokosa’ came up since I used this song for my music class for kids and found that its odd metering carried over into jazz in a unique way.For ‘Yosaku,’ I just like the bluesy feeling of its chord progression (re-harmonized from the original version). It was quite a joy to find that ‘Yosaku’ could transform into jazz!” Both tracks show the trio at its swinging best and bring to life the freshness of Shirasaki’s thinking.
Like the title track by Leonard Bernstein, the album as a whole has a sense of breathing about it, as if it were being sung through the body rather than through an instrument. The affective commitment required to achieve this dynamic amounts to no small task, but Shirasaki and her trio make it sound natural as can be. In her own words: “I always want to play better than yesterday.” Let us hope, then, that there will be many other times to come.