Live Performance Review-Jazz Improv Magazine
By Joe Knips
On a drizzly evening in mid-March, I had the pleasure of listening to a fabulous pianist and her trio, in comfortable surroundings, while enjoying a terrific meal. The lounge at Kitano seats about 45 patrons in a tight, but comfortably arranged lounge on the mezzanine of this modern hotel. Located in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, the bar looks out over Park Avenue. Proprietor Gino Moratti makes you feel right at home with a smile as he shows you to your seat. I chose a light meal for my dinner, which consisted of the Asian Chicken Salad, washed down with a Brooklyn Lager-a fine match, and highly recommended. The only thing left to do was to relax and get down to enjoying the sounds of Mamiko Watanabe, Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth. Mamiko introduced herself, and the pianist's quiet demeanor belies her powerful approach to the keys, as I was soon to discover.
The first set began with an original composition by Watanabe. "A Veil of Secrecy" is an up-tempo piece, with an arrangement that allowed for comments from the bass and drums. It was right into 4/4 swing for Watanabe's first solo of the night, where she took her time, being careful not to clutter things up at the beginning. Strong communication between Biolcati and Nemeth emerged while the two were engaged in egging the pianist on. Mamiko left plenty of space to allow things to happen, and I was immediately drawn to Nemeth's provocative yet tasteful drum work. A montuno gave way to a vamp figure, over which Nemeth unfurled polyrhythms and employed an aggressive volume that was not the least bit unwelcome in the low-profile room.
Next, the pianist set up what she calls her "favorite Jazz standard" with a Latin vamp. On this performance of "Here's That Rainy Day",Watanabe let loose some pentatonic McCoy-flavored runs over this vamp, her right hand slightly arpeggiating the chords, which added a lush quality to the opening segment. Her arrangement once again generously assigned hits and fills to her supportive counterparts. Nemeth was right in synch with Watanabe's left hand while her right danced freely across the keys. Bassist Biolcati took a strong solo with a big, woody tone, and lines that clearly showed respect for the arrangement. The performance gave a sense of strength in reserve, and provoked great applause. As someone in the audience shouted, "Yes, Ma'am!"
The lovely ballad "Even If" began out of time, with sparkling keys, mallets rolling on cymbals and sustained plucked notes from the bass. The melody was rendered in a "1" feel that the bassist eventually transformed into a "2" feel, while Nemeth switched to brushes. The trio sustained a floating feel that let you hear them breathing as one. Nemeth and Biolcati made soft and subtle trasitions through each change in the groove on this great tune, one that I swear I've hread before...
Next up was a lively tune in seven. "The game is Ready" distinguished itself with a "modal" sound that included a montuno to set off Mamiko's solo over a single chord vamp. Nemeth quickly breathed life into the groove, pushing Mamiko to new heights as she sustained a pattern in her right hand, while her left hand developed ideas independently. After reaching a pinnacle, the band returned to the song's head, and then revisited the vamp as a backdrop to Nemeth's drum solo.Watanabe virtully transformed the standard "Beautiful Love", beginning with a solo rubato intro peppered with Tatum-esque runs in between the phrases. The harmony bore the stamp of a strong composer and arranger, who knows how to polish up an oft-played tune. Her right hand took over for a bit during her improvisation.-while the left hand laid out-creating sonic openness as she began sequencing a string of ideas, much like Herbie Hancock.
The penultimate "Jewel" was dedicated to a soon-to-be-wed cousin in Japan, and was rendered as a bluesy waltz. Echoes of Silver and Golson could be heard throughout the piece. The pianist accented parts of her phrases, evoking several meters at once. Later, even though her melody became a bit literal and obvious, she quickly dissolved the cutesiness with rich chards and looser time feel. The song's ending became an unsure moment for the players at first, but their shared skills and sense of trust saved the day.The set ended with another original, this one entitled: " Shadow". The fast, modern samba, featurred a pair of chords as a vamp, the third piece to emply a montuno, albeit briefly.
This woman puts on a real show: her set of tunes has a great flow, careful sequencing, no dead spots whatsoever, interesting arrangements and clever reharmonizations. Watanabe also chose strong musicians to carry the music to new and exciting places. There was almos no hesitation from the players, especially on the originals: strong playing, trust, generous interplay, and a shared sense of adventure. It was clear too that Watanabe and Nemeth really enjoyed playing off each other, and the pianist's compositions and arrangements allowed for just that ingredient. Thank you to the Kitano for a wonderful night. And to Watanabe, Biolcati and Nemeth: Thank you for letting us spectators onto your musical playground!