—Marc Myers (April 2010)
Marc Myers writes JazzWax.com, a daily blog that features interviews with jazz legends
and commentary on legendary jazz recordings. He also writes on jazz for the Wall Street Journal.
Ayako Shirasaki was 10 years old when her father invited her to sit down in the family’s living room and listen to a jazz recording. The album was Study in Brown, featuring trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach. As the cassette began to play, Ayako heard Roach’s war-chant rhythm quickly dissolve into a swinging rendition of Cherokee. Ayako was taken aback.
“Clifford Brown, he astonished me,” Ayako says. “I was captivated immediately by his tone, his ability to make so many melodies. He was hot and classy at the same time.”
Hot and classy—or the tasteful unleashing of creative passion—is precisely how I would describe Ayako’s performance on Falling Leaves, her fourth CD. Recorded live in October 2009 at Laeiszhalle-Musikhalle’s Studio E in Hamburg, Germany, Ayako delivers one poetic attack after the next on jazz standards, Tin Pan Alley evergreens, originals and even a traditional Japanese song.
What’s most remarkable about Ayako’s solo playing is her creative courage and inventive edge. Ayako takes on the most challenging songs without fear or trepidation, combining physical power with spiritual sensitivity. When Ayako enters a standard, she rearranges all the musical furniture without ever loosing sight of the melody’s original beauty and purpose.
“My playing style is rooted in bebop but I try to work in counterpoint—two competing melodies—to kick it up a notch,” Ayako says. “For me, the goal always is to set my left hand free and to be different.”
Growing up in Japan in the 1980s, Ayako’s father exposed her to recordings by bebop greats. A baker and photographer by profession and amateur trumpeter, Ayako’s father played her albums by Charlie Parker, Tommy Flanagan, Jackie McLean, Wynton Kelly, Art Blakey and many others.
Ayako began studying classical piano at age 5 and soon was performing publicly at annual student recitals. She wasn’t big on practicing, preferring instead to be outside playing with friends. But her parents insisted, and today she’s grateful they did.
By age 10, Ayako was transcribing solos by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker at the encouragement of her dad. “My father always had big dreams for me and still does,” says Ayako, laughing. “He secretly wanted me to become a jazz pianist but didn’t say anything until I made the choice on my own.” When she was 12, Ayako began performing jazz at local clubs in Tokyo. “I wasn’t afraid to play in front of audiences, but it did feel awkward to be the only person my age there,” she says.
After high school, Ayako attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Five years after graduating, Ayako realized she had to move to New York if she was going to be taken seriously as a jazz artist.
But soon after relocating to New York in 1997, Ayako faced her first hurdle—the English language. So she began studying in small midtown Manhattan schools, eventually enrolling in English language courses at Columbia University.
Ayako met her husband Tom Landman, a jazz guitarist, at a Greenwich Village café in 1998. Tom eventually urged her to apply for a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music. Ayako took his advice, and in 1999 was admitted—completing her music masters program in 2001.
Listening to this CD, you will quickly notice that Ayako has been most strongly influenced by bebop dynamos Bud Powell and Tommy Flanagan. But she also favors the hypersensitive Bill Evans and robust Phineas Newborn Jr. Their influences, too, emerge on several tracks.
Ayako opens with Charlie Parker’s "Confirmation", which was first recorded by Dizzy Gillespie in 1946 when Parker failed to show up for their Dial studio session. Listen as Ayako sweeps in with an abstract Bud Powell-like introduction before plunging into this bebop classic. “Confirmation was the first song I had performed at a student concert when I was 12,” Ayako notes.
Duke Ellington’s "In a Sentimental Mood" receives a penetrating interpretation by Ayako, who rolls in and out of the 1935 melody line with rich chord voicings and breathtaking technique. Ayako insists she didn’t work out her elaborate interpretation in advance. “It just went where it wanted to go,” she says.
"Airegin"—Nigeria spelled backward—was composed in 1954 by Sonny Rollins and is notoriously difficult. Which didn’t stop Ayako from attacking it more ferociously than most artists would dare. Listen as she mixes in classical flourishes and half time stride. “It’s a wow song,” Ayako says. “There are lots of chord changes, and it’s really tricky.”
If Chick Corea’s "Mirror Mirror" sounds familiar, it should. The first four measures are "Someday My Prince Will Come" from Snow White (hence the song’s title). In Ayako’s trained hands, this waltz takes on a jazz-classical feel. Halfway through, her hands seem to canter with child-like elation.
"Sakura Sakura" in English means “cherry blossom, cherry blossom,” and the nearly 100-yearold traditional Japanese song pays tribute to the beauty of the pink flower. “I wanted to play this one straight, to add a Japanese taste,” Ayako says.
On "Summertime", Ayako opens with suspenseful drama, so much so that you anticipate the sound of Miles Davis’ muted trumpet. The feel is the same as the previous song, but with a more concentrated and deliberate jazz feel.
Ayako composed "Falling Leaves" before she had a title. “The melody features lots of descending lines, which made me think of leaves falling in the autumn,” she says. “But I think I am throwing the leaves around a little too, having fun.”
"Sleigh Ride" was first recorded by Ayako in 2006 on An NPR Jazz Christmas with Marian McPartland and Friends (Vol. 3). But Ayako was already familiar with the holiday tune, having heard it while growing up in Japan. “The song has a very American folk flavor,” she says. “I played it during the recital because Hamburg was unusually cold that day. If you can feel the joy of winter, like in this song, you will feel better.”
"Monkey Punch", an original, was written when Ayako was studying at the Manhattan School of Music. The title’s origin? “It’s a punchy blues with a hint of Thelonious Monk,” she says.
Another original, "Far Away", was written in 2001 during a bout of homesickness. Note Ayako’s subtle reference to Over the Rainbow. It’s one of the album’s highlights and has the touching feel and melodic sophistication of a Johnny Mandel melody. “Pianist Kenny Barron, one of my teachers, had asked me to write a melodic ballad that might move singers to add lyrics,” she says.
"Nascimento", a samba by Barry Harris, was chosen for it’s cheerful disposition (the word means “birth” in Portuguese). “The audience was so warm and responsive to my playing that I included this song to show my appreciation,” Ayako says.
The final four encore songs—"Moonglow", "My Romance" and a merging of Paul Desmond’s "Take Five" and Sonny Rollins’ "St. Thomas"—were audience requests.
“At first I couldn’t think of a way to work in "Take Five", so I stopped and the audience applauded,” Ayako says. “Then someone requested "St. Thomas". I decided to connect the two songs by playing them both in 5/4 time, which was a surprise and joy for me. That’s the real thrill of improvisation.”
This concert—and an earlier performance at the 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival in March 2009—marked Ayako’s return to the concert stage after a short break to spend time with her young children.
“Recordings of children’s songs typically win out over jazz at our house now, but our 3-year-old daughter can recognize the sounds of each instrument,” Ayako says. And her 1-year-old son? “He goes to sleep each night listening to Helen Merrill With Clifford Brown,” she says.
—Marc Myers (April 2010)
Marc Myers writes JazzWax.com, a daily blog that features interviews with jazz legends and commentary on legendary jazz recordings. He also writes on jazz for the Wall Street Journal.