Originally published in the NY Sun, Sept. 26, 2008. Not revised.
Manhattan’s landscape can change in a flash, yet even near the busiest thoroughfares, a half-forgotten pocket exists where time stands still and only the escalating beer prices alert a patron to the approximate decade. Straddle a barstool inside the musty, West Village cocoon that is Arthur’s Tavern and marvel. Balloons dangle from the ceiling, slowly deflating, their candy-shop hues faded with the years. The tobacco-brown wall paneling is dotted with ratty decorations that celebrate every occasion: Cupid silhouettes for Valentine’s Day, fake cobwebs for Halloween. If there’s a ghost of Greenwich Village past, it probably abides here, harmonizing with the creaking furniture.
Dump that it is, Arthur’s makes a great bet for jazz fans. Almost every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for the past nine years, the pianist Eri Yamamoto has led her trio through a couple of early evening sets at the Grove Street bar. It’s the sort of open-ended residency that seems rare these days, a holdover from the era when Charlie Parker would drop by and jam. Ms. Yamamoto’s focused, sensitive touch and the easy flow of her rhythm section sometimes mark a brave stand against the chatter that fills the bar.
There’s no cover charge, so people wander in and out. A ring of chairs in the back of the room, where the pianist plays on an enclosed stage, offers an over-the-shoulder vantage point.
“It’s a challenge,” Ms. Yamamoto said recently. “Sometimes it’s very noisy, but sometimes it’s fantastic.”
The 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.
Where “Redwoods” presents a cycle of nature-inspired compositions that emphasize the melodic mesh of a working band (with bassist Ikuo Takeuchi and drummer David Ambrosio), “Duologue” is a departure, a collection of improvisatory duets among Mr. 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 on piano.
“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 Ear.
“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.”