Friday, February 12, 2021

Yoko Miwa and her trio seek to reaffirm the power of jazz joy

The veteran pianist-educator Yoko Miwa explicitly lines up behind the mission of emphasizing the joy of jazz in her new trio recording, "Songs of Joy" (Ubuntu Music).

With Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums, she has assembled a program of originals, plus a

Yoko Miwa is on the Berklee School faculty.

few pieces from across the pop-jazz spectrum. I would advise the listener not to locate a specific effusion of joy in each of the 11 selections, however. 

"Largo Desolato" sounds neither especially slow nor desolate, but it's intended to evoke "the unnaturally empty streets of New York City at the height of the pandemic," in the publicist's language accompanying my copy of the release. "The Lonely Hours," another Miwa composition, has a somber memorial tinge in carrying out its dedication to her late father, who died in Japan after the pandemic made visiting impossible. The joy must be embedded in a daughter's fond memories.

On the whole, however, the disc presents an uncomplicated approach to its ruling mood. The pianist has a gift for making melodies glow naturally, which stands her in good stead for Richie Havens' "Freedom" and Billy Preston's "Song of Joy." Her interpretive imagination creates something fresh out of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One," as the jaggedness of Monk's performances gives way to a smooth puttering about by the trio, with some deft changes in harmony from the original.

Miwa has a hard-working left hand, often elaborating on the sketchiness characteristic of many jazz pianists. In "Freedom," this replicates the grinding assertiveness of a Havens performance of his signature tune. Normally, she is after true balances, with the left hand moving effectively in answer to the definitive right, as in the deep-grooving "Small Talk" and Duke Jordan's "No Problem."

The trio sounds thoroughly seasoned as a mutually responsive unit. There are several fine bass solos and particularly good showcases for both sidemen in "Tony's Blues." In the set finale, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," Brad Barrett replaces Slater for an extended exhibition of bowed bass. The performance is overextended, given the relatively pallid material. But it only slightly detracts from the pizazz of the rest of the program.

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