On the cover of her new album, pianist Ayako Shirasaki looks as demure and as delicate as a cherry blossom. But looks can be deceiving, especially in jazz. On Falling Leaves: Live in Hamburg, Ayako plays solo piano with a powerful attack and enormous physical strength that leaves you enchanted and breathless.
As for the demure thing—Ayako shatters that misconception by boldly taking on some tough jazz pieces on this album, her fourth CD. Standards range from Charlie Parker's Confirmation and Sonny Rollins' Airegin to Barry Harris' Nascimento and Chick Corea's Mirror Mirror. She turns these songs and others into works of tidal beauty, whipping each into a lush, frothy frenzy. It's as though she were singing through the keyboard rather than playing it.
First, full disclosure. I wrote the liner notes to Falling Leaves. But I do not receive a dime in royalties from sales, and I only take on liner-notes projects to albums that interest me. What's more, I would have raved about this CD anyway.
Ayako was born in Japan and was exposed to jazz while growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. When she was five years old, her father, an ardent jazz fan and amateur trumpeter, introduced her to Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Bud Powell and other jazz greats on cassette. An early concert pianist, Ayako eventually gravitated toward jazz, much to her father's delight and mother's trepidation. By age 10, she was transcribing the solos of Parker and Powell, leaving her parents and teachers amazed.
After relocating to New York in 1997 to be closer to the jazz scene, she took English language courses at Columbia University. After Ayako met her husband at a Greenwich Village cafe in 1998, he persuaded her to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music. She received her masters degree in 2001.
On Falling Leaves, you not only hear Ayako execute inventive interpretations of well-chosen jazz classics but she also takes on a few American Songbook gems. Catch her version of Rodgers and Hart's My Romance, a soaring, passionate rendition that triggers enormous audience applause at the end. Ayako also introduces original works that showcase her full range of skills as a lyrical composer and dynamic soloist.
And dig what she does with Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride, zigzagging on the melody and sweeping through with solid power and swing. You can almost feel the icy powder spray up from the sled as she roars through her interpretation, adding Bud Powell and Tommy Flanagan touches along the way. This one is the holiday jazz track to beat.
And catch Ayako's stride style on her own Monkey Punch, a blues with a Thelonious Monk overlay. Or her Far Away, a suspenseful tune with a rich Johnny Mandel-like melody that pianist Kenny Barron encouraged her to compose.
But perhaps one of the CD's most eloquent solutions to a complex problem came toward the album's close, when audience members requested Paul Desmond's Take Five and Sonny Rollins' St. Thomas. Somehow Ayako managed to seamlessly connect Desmond's 5/4 standard to Sonny's rambunctious calypso, and the result is quite spectacular.
To my ears, Ayako is fast on her way to becoming a leading jazz light and fresh voice in the crowded field of performing jazz piano stars. Sample a few tracks and see what you think.
JazzWax tracks: You will find Ayako Shirasaki's Falling Leaves: Live in Hamburg (Jan Matthies Records) recorded in March 2009 at iTunes or here. Try sampling Falling Leaves, Sleigh Ride or My Romance.
JazzWax clip: Here's Ayako in a trio setting performing It Could Happen to You back in January...