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Like many recording projects slated for 2020, pianist Miki Yamanaka’s fourth session as a leader was changed from a live club date to the safer, minimally staffed surroundings of a home studio. And while the club’s audience certainly would have elicited greater excitement, this eight-song set of six standards and two originals is a solid showcase for the duo of Yamanaka and bassist Orlando le Fleming, with half the tunes expanded to a trio with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
Yamanaka has established herself as a pianist of choice since moving to New York in 2012. A native of Kobe, Japan, she currently holds the piano chair in three stellar working bands, with Philip Harper, Roxy Coss and Antonio Hart, respectively. Her steady leader gigs occur monthly at the notable New York clubs Smalls and Mezzrow.
The duo displays an intimate musical relationship based on sensitivity, particularly where shared rhythmic concepts are concerned. “My Melancholy Baby” opens rubato solo piano with the seldom-heard verse. At tempo, the duo puts its own spin on the tune by presenting it as a sprightly waltz. Le Fleming solos quite melodically, with choice notes over sparse piano chords. Yamanaka’s solo is spacious, occasionally displacing phrases from the song’s written melody. After several choruses, Le Fleming breaks into a solidly walking bass, showing the duo’s penchant for swinging hard.
Turner opens Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” by exploring giant melodic leaps that would garner Monk’s approval, settling into an easy two-beat feel at medium tempo. Excellent solos by all maintain this sumptuous groove. While the session obviously was recorded in a smallish room, Turner’s dry-sounding saxophone, in particular, would have been better served by electronically adding a bit of “room ambiance.” Little matter. Yamanaka and her musical partners have succeeded with Stairway to the Stars, displaying supreme musicianship seemingly devoid of ego and full of heart. — James Rozzi