Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ayako Shirasaki @ The Kitano, New York, February 9, 2006

This was the first time that I’d actually hear Ayako Shirasaki play, although I’d heard about her before and visited her website ( I had two business visitors in town from Toronto and Washington, DC, and I’d decided to take them out to listen to some jazz at the Kitano, the best-kept secret on Park Avenue. We got a table by the piano and ordered some red wine. Soon the lights were dimmed and Ayako with her band entered the room. The diminutive Japanese woman sat on the piano stool right in front of us and counted the tempo to Thelonius Monk’s Four in One. From the first notes it was clear we would be hearing something special tonight. The trio started swinging with an easy beat and their leader played Monk’s square melody with a verve, following on with an impressive solo.

Ayako Shirasaki was backed by Marco Panascia, a young Italian bassist, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. The Kitano is small and intimate enough that only the acoustic bass requires any amplification. The Steinway grand can carry its own without trouble. From our vantage point, we could observe classically-trained former child prodigy handle the ivories with a rare facility, sometimes lyrically, other times powerfully, always at her will and whimsy. All seats and tables in the bar were taken. Although located within a hotel, the Kitano takes jazz seriously and people come there expressly for the music. Being a Japanese joint in Manhattan’s Midtown, there are always many Japanese in the audience.

After another Billie Strayhorn classic, it was time for a Shirasaki original. “Although my English is not good (actually it is, although she speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent), I invented a word,” she explained, “it describes my character: Simplexity.” The tune turned out to be a beautiful major key waltz with seemingly simple, yet complex melody and some unexpected rhythmic twists. Towards the end, Hutchinson turned the three-fourths rhythm into a medium straight swing.

This was followed by a wonderful rendition of the beautiful ballad Estate. Ayako played it strongly, yet lyrically. Her use of thick chords played with two hands in the mid-register combined with crisp right-hand lines made an emotionally powerful statement.

The set featured a series of numbers that allowed the rhythm section shine. Marco played a couple of excellent solos with a beautiful thick sound. Gregory, cool and expressionless in his dreadlocks while playing, was plain amazing. Seldom does one hear such a sensitive drummer who listens and picks up subtle cues from the other players, reacting and building upon them. His solos were extremely imaginative and his skills using the snare drum and hi-hat remarkable. Like the gig’s leader’s, Gregory Hutchinson’s playing was distinctly contemporary, while demonstrating deep roots in the jazz of bygone years.

Ayako herself was just amazing. It should not be taken lightly when I say that her performance was amongst the best piano jazz I’ve ever heard. With strong classical technique and anchored in a thorough understanding of jazz history. One could hear influences ranging from Monk to Oscar Peterson – at times she could even produce hints of Art Tatum with a two-beat left hand accompaniment – but her style was her own, absolutely unique. Her sense of harmony (the thick mid-register chords!) and ability to create lengthy smooth improvised yarns that, even when atonal, always led one meaningfully from point A to point B. In several solos she’d play octaves with both hands (yes, she likes that, she confirmed when we chatted afterwards) – or sometimes the hands would play complex counterpoints like in a fugue. Her technical virtuosity allowed her to play whatever came to her creative mind (although she, modestly, claimed that she’d sometimes get lost) and the rhythmic patterns were varied and interesting, while never missing the beat.

One of the high points of the evening was an up-tempo version of Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts. By this time the audience was getting quite animated repeating the silly title at the appropriate places. The rhythm section was cooking with a light, unforced touch that propelled the song onwards. The extremely fast tempo gave Ayako an opportunity demonstrate her amazing dexterity as we watched breathlessly her fingers run on the keyboard.

A calmer moment followed as Ayako asked for permission play Strayhorn’s Daydream on solo piano while Marco and Gregory retreated to the bar. This turned out to be a lovely interpretation of the classic, rich in lyricism and complex harmonies, yet played with slow beat that made the audience bodies sway.

All in all, a wonderful evening. This may have been the first time I heard Ayako Shirasaki, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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