By Fred Bouchard | Published December 2018
On her witty, appealing debut as a leader, pianist Miki Yamanaka runs free and easy with a fresh spin on mainstream bop. Her light touch tickles airy tunes with will-o’-the-wisp turns and oddly formal grace notes. Yamanaka amps up these excursions with celebratory out-choruses, flecked with two-fisted chords and sharp-eyed phrases. The democratic pianist gives plenty of solo space from the git-go to her top-notch bandmates. “Mr. Pancake,” a quirky number with flippant chord sequences, quickly defers to Orlando Le Fleming’s bass, brisk fours with Steve Nelson’s vibraphone and Bill Stewart’s drums rising over a late vamp.
There’s plenty of metric mischief afoot, too. “Eyes” is a breezy waltz, direct and honest.
An exuberant “Monk’s Dream” takes shape, bright and playful, as it floats between 3 and 4 with sneaky bar extensions. Phrase lengths stretch on the strutting “Stuffed Cabbage,” with sizzling drums fours.
Sprinkles of Andrew Hill’s adventurous spirit and Aki Takase’s potent punch imbue the companionable set. “Book” is a serious read with a deceptively easy backbeat; the catchy tune “A Fake Hero” opens up fluid, easy solos; and “Sea Salt” is a quixotic diversion, marrying stark piano with Stewart’s spray, pan-cymbals and mallets. The lone standard, “For All We Know,” showcases Nelson’s glancing lyricism. Wait for it: The most puckish, curiously omnidirectional track is the bustling closing blues, “What About Food,” unconventional à la Herbie Nichols—or David Chang.
What a tasty, jolly journey.