Mondays with Morgan: Miki Yamanaka (new album ‘Shades of Rainbow’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos conducted an in-person interview with Japanese-born, New York-based pianist and composer Miki Yamanaka.

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Her new album, Shades of Rainbow, featuring saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Tyrone Allen, and drummer Jimmy Macbride, is available now via Cellar Live.

Links to purchase Shades of Rainbow, and to Yamanaka’s website, are available at the bottom of this article.

Miki Yamanaka. Photo credit Martina DaSilva

These days, so many jazz album covers feel like afterthoughts; they leave a lot to be desired. But the art to Miki Yamanaka’s Shades of Rainbow is the complete opposite.

The photo of the Japanese-born, New York-based pianist and composer is s simple, monumental and memorable; it dovetails perfectly with the title. And it was a complete fluke.

In the center of the frame, the pianist sits at the keys, turned to the camera; jazz vocalist Martina DaSilva had captured it at an old photo shoot, from ages ago.

“I happened to be wearing the damn rainbow kimono,” Yamanka tells LondonJazz at a bar upstairs from Dizzy’s, where she had just soundchecked for a sidewoman gig. “It was an accident.”

In the photo, in Yamanaka’s right hand, is a wine glass. At first glance, it looks to be filled with some colorful confection. But it’s actually a part of her kimono, balled up in the bowl: the koshi-himo, a kind of belt that secures the ensemble around the waist and hips.

Every component of the kimono is rich with meaning — the koshi-himo included. “It ties something, right?” Yamanaka says. “It’s always trying to keep the body straight — keep your body’s integrity.”

As she explains, this symbolism extends to all kinds of bonds in life — spousal, collegial, or any other. That’s why it was perfect for Shades of Rainbow — recorded with saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Tyrone Allen, and drummer Jimmy Macbride.

These ties run profoundly deep. During the pandemic’s early days — when it really felt like we could kiss gigs goodbye — Yamanaka recorded the ruminative, searching Stairway to the Stars, with Turner and bassist Orlando de Fleming.

Turner is one of the most influential saxophonists on the New York scene; Yamanaka was originally a fan, but they soon became friends. Over the past few years, she’s played frequently with Allen and Macbride; Macbride happens to be Yamanaka’s husband.

Of course, live performances did return, and Yamanaka set out on tour with the three — a total family affair, with meals and movies and Turner’s daughter, Kirin, joining in the camaraderie.

That forging of bonds flowed into the recording of Shades of Rainbow, a radiant set of originals released in early September.

“That Ain’t Betty” is a riotously revved-up contrafact of a Benny Golson standard; Yamanaka crafted the title track around Turner’s sound and approach; “Song for Mary Lou” pays homage to Mary Lou Williams, the mightily swinging piano great.

Throughout the summer and fall, Yamanaka has been hitting and hitting in the New York area; check her website below as gigs continue to roll in. For now, read on for an interview about Shades of Rainbow and what Yamanaka’s eyeing for the not-so-distant future.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

LJN: Let’s start with you and Mark Turner. What makes you two fuse so well?

Miki Yamanaka: Mark Turner is an incredible figure already at this point. All the tenor saxophonists, at least one time in their path, wants to play like him. You cannot deny how influential he is. I don’t play tenor saxophone, but I grew up listening to him.

When I got to meet him, he was such a chill, nice dude. We had nice hangs a couple of times before he was really down to hang out. He’s getting older; he doesn’t really hang that much anymore. And he doesn’t live here, too. But sometimes, we got to hang out and close Smalls together.

He’s really not pretentious. He’s not like “Oh, I’m the s—.” He doesn’t ever act like that.

LJN: What was the core concept of Shades of Rainbow?

MY: The trio — me, Jimmy Macbride, Tyrone Allen — is very important. We play in the city a lot. The trio is creating a new sound for me; I finally understood the meaning and importance of having a band. So, that was the original thought.

And then, when I make a recording, I want to have a guest to make it look a little more visible — maybe people can grab that more because of this guest.

When I thought about that, I thought about Mark immediately. I initially asked him even before [2021’s] Stairway to the Stars. [2020’s] Human Dust Suite, my older record: I asked him to play, but the scheduling didn’t work. When I asked him for Stairway to the Stars, we worked really nicely.

So, I was like: If I have a guest, that has to be Mark. Because if you already have a relationship — like I said, the importance of having a band…

LJN: You have that trust. I remember you telling me your wild story during the pandemic.

MY: Sure did. If I want to have the band sound, I want to have someone that I know already — to not have to create new friendships.

You can hire anyone if you’ve got the budget. My first official debut record, [2018’s] Miki, was like that. So I could record with Steve Nelson on the vibraphone; I could record with Bill Stewart on the drums. You’ve got to have that kind of [sense of] It’s the one time that I get to play with these musicians.

Mark was the first person to think of, and he was ready. He was like, OK, I can do that.

LJN: Tell me about “Song for Mary Lou.” I feel like you and Mary Lou Williams share a rough-and-tumble quality. And Mark Turner’s like a laser beam through it.

MY: I wrote that because I was listening to her trio record [1976’s Free Spirits, with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Mickey Roker].

I was like, man — first of all, she writes great tunes. Really unique. And then, she likes to swing, in the shoes of a bandleader. A woman figure like this is really important to me.

I was driving and listening to the record — and then I finished listening, came up with this first line of the melody, and immediately recorded a voice memo.

LJN: Like it came out of her hands.

MY: Yes, almost like continuous music to me. Then, I was like, OK, I’m going to expand that. I expanded pretty big; it became a nice, 32-bar-ish, medium banger. Mark sounded f—ing amazing.

LJN: Which tune grew from there?

MY: “That Ain’t Betty.” That’s a contrafact of “Along Came Betty”; that’s a Benny Golson tune that I love to blow on.

Originally, the tune is pretty medium — slow, nice and chill — but I like to play it fast. I wanted to write something out of the changes, that gets more and more energetic.

The composition style is influenced by the drummer Jochen Rueckert — an amazing composer. He and Mark play together often too. He wrote this contrafact of something else — I forgot — but it started from a different spot. It doesn’t start from the top of the tune.

So, I was like, I’ll do that. I started from the bridge of “Along Came Betty,” and it became a tune. I have this little vamp in the end — the bass solo really grooving — that I really liked. It happened really organically.

LJN: I love Benny Golson (*). He’s a great, great practitioner. I wish more people would talk about people like him, rather than just the innovators.

MY: If you listen to him, you feel great. You know what I’m saying? Can we just feel f—ing good listening to music? Does everything have to be the best thing ever, or the most innovative thing ever? No, I just want to feel good.

Miki Yamanaka. Photo credit Martina DaSilva

LJN: Can you talk about the title track to Shades of Rainbow?

MY: That’s the newest composition on the record. I knew that the recording was going to happen, so I was thinking, What would make Mark sound like Mark Turner? I was imagining Mark playing it. 

LJN: You wrote it around him.

MY: Yes. I was purely thinking about Mark playing this. It came from an old idea, but it was like, Damn, Mark is in my head.

And I recorded a couple of tunes that are very old; I wrote them when I was in school. “GIN” and “Early Morning.” I wanted to go back to my old songbook that I play a lot, but never recorded.

LJN: We’re all sick of talking about the pandemic. But given your experience of recording Stairway to the Stars, this album cycle must feel like such a release.

MY: It was really special that I could bring my whole quartet elsewhere — [outside of] New York. That was my first time ever. That never happened. So, that was a really big deal for me. And that we got to record right after that is so f—ing fabulous.

We talked about Stairway to the Stars, how meaningful it was to play music with one another. This was like that — even extra, extra.

LJN: What should we know about the songs you didn’t mention?

MY: “Uh Oh” is just a blues banger. Everybody does their thing. I play this with many different people, and they just do their own thing.

And we play in so many different styles, because it’s just a blues; it barely has any direction to it. This time, we just decided to play super fast. I hope you enjoyed that little Wurlitzer sound. 

The last one is “Clam.” That’s the ballad of the record. I wrote it for a ramen restaurant. There was a clam-based broth ramen that I was really excited to eat during COVID, but in the end, I really didn’t like the ramen…

LJN: I remember you telling that story onstage at the Jazz Gallery.

MY: Yeah. I was really excited about the food. People were just excited about going out to eat, so that was cute. We overdubbed a bunch of percussion and little textures at the end.

One last one is “Oatmeal.” I recorded it on my last record as well. I really didn’t want to play over Mark; he played it so beautifully. I was like, Why don’t we play that during the tour? We played it during the tour, and it just sounded so good.

I wanted to record it with the actual quartet, because Stairway to the Stars has no drums. So, I included that in the end.

LJN: Where do you feel like you can go from here?

MY: I’ve actually been talking to Cory Weeds, the owner of Cellar Live. At this moment, he wants to keep working with me.

So, for next year, I think I’m going to do a trio record, which I’ve never done. Piano, bass, drums — and I’m going to do a lot of arrangements of standards. So, it’s going to be Miki Yamanaka Plays Standards, Vol. 1.

LJN: That’s a move! I like it.

MY: I want to do it. I’ve always wanted to do it, because I love playing tunes. I love standards; I know so many tunes. All the gigs in New York that I do, I’m playing tunes.

On Stairway to the Stars, I played a lot of tunes. “Stairway to the Stars”: a beautiful ballad. “Cheryl,” “Ask Me Now,” “Tea for Two.” And also original tunes. But this time, we’re going to do all standards. I’m already writing new arrangements. I’m ready.

I’m in the middle of my thirties. I think it’s time to present what I want to do on the piano. With the piano, it’s very easy to show people what I really like.

So, do I want to do a Bill Charlap type of piano trio? Do I want to do an Ahmad Jamal type of piano trio? Do I want to do an Andrew Hill type of Piano trio? What do I want to do? I want to be Miki Yamanaka.

LINKS: Purchase Shades of Rainbow
Miki Yamanaka’s site
Enos’ article “Why Everybody Should Seek Benny Golson” can be found on pg. 104 of the 2022 GRAMMYs program book.

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