Stairway to the Stars
Outside in Music
This is our second entry for Miki Yamanaka, who’s stunning 2020 Human Dust Suite we covered on these same pages. She returns with a more intimate recording, Stairway to the Stars, her third album, this time with a drumless trio featuring returning bassist Orlando le Fleming and acclaimed saxophonist Mark Turner. The album was recorded in Yamanaka’s home studio during the NYC shutdown instead of its original plan to be recorded live in front of an audience at Mezzrow Club during one of Yamanaka’s weekend performances. Here the Japanese-born pianist sticks strictly to piano, having also played vibraphone on the previous recording. She delivers just two originals: “Oatmeal and “Wonder” but displays a keen melodic and rhythmic sense throughout, sometimes playing just with the bassist and other times as a trio.
Both le Fleming (whom we also covered last year as a bandleader) and Turner are in-demand sidemen and bandleaders with busy schedules, so Yamanaka was thrilled to play with Turner for the first time, in her own apartment no less. They begin with the Charlie Parker bebop classic “Cheryl” featuring the pianist’s stirring runs up and down the ivories and a most convivial conversation with le Fleming. The two sally forth into another standard, “My Melancholy Baby,” which is even a stronger showcase for le Fleming who delivers a highly melodic turn while the pianist comps behind him. Turner joins the duo for the first time on Steve Swallow’s “Eiderdown,” which reveals his stunning unison work with the pianist and strong interplay between the three musicians. Yamanaka deftly navigates the start-stop rhythms in her solo before taking her glistening rapid-ride excursion. It’s an oft covered tune into which they breathe fresh life.
Seemingly every major pianist includes at least one Monk tune in the repertoire, and sure enough, Yamanaka adds the lesser known “Ask Me Now” which begins with Turner’s soliloquy before le Fleming and later, the pianist join as Turner continues his solo. Then Yamanaka steps forward, playing much more smoothly than the iconic composer, but retaining his signature angularity and unpredictability. She and Turner play point-counterpoint while le Fleming stays true to his walking bass line before taking his own turn. Turner restates the theme rather elegantly as they go out.
“Wonder” is the first of the Yamanaka’s originals with le Fleming handling the intro before the two engage in quietly intense dialogue. “Oatmeal” sees Turner return to blow over the pianist’s bluesy harmonic chords while le Fleming keeps in swinging through some tricky changes. This, as much as any of the pieces involving all three members, exemplifies the tight cohesion of the trio. The title track is, of course, a tender, sentimental standard ballad which the pianist and bassist render with appropriate delicacy and grace. Turner joins for the bouncy standard “Tea for Two” as the trio swings gleefully.
The whole vibe of this Yamanaka quote runs through this spirited outing – “I never take it for granted to be able to be with my favorite people making music, drinking nice wine, eating nice food together, ever again. It made me realize how important that is my life.” The joyous energy of this small gathering is palpable.
- Jim Hynes