If I lived in Boston, I would have already heard of Yoko Miwa. She is a mainstay of the jazz scene there, and her teaching at the Berklee College of Music places her in the center of musical activity in Boston. She also plays dynamite piano, with a left hand that could crush a Volkswagen. Perhaps the rest of the country needs to be clued in.
Miwa studied classical music and jazz in Japan before coming to the U.S., and upon graduating from Berklee she was offered a teaching position. Very impressive. She worked with the Ryles Jazz Orchestra as well as being the accompanist for Kevin Mahogany. Diverse background. Now she fronts a trio around town, and has put out five albums (four on Japanese labels). Prolific. But what does she sound like?
Her style is lyrical and accessible, concentrating on mainstream styles, but with a clear sense of expertise that brings in her classical background as well as her influences. One hears a bit of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, but she's not an imitator. Miwa plays a wide range of stuff, incorporating swing, blues, bop, pop, Brazilian, chamber, and stride. While a lot of her music is fun (Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something" leads off) but also intense, and she takes time to develop each song. Of the seven tracks, only two run under nine minutes, so she spins the music out, never cutting it short. The result is a sense of envelopment for the listener; leisurely, but requiring alertness in order to catch the way she grows each tune.
Three of the songs are originals, with the others from a startling variety of composers, including Art Farmer, Milton Nascimento, Steven Tyler, and Lou Reed. The presence of rock artists suggest a Brad Mehldau approach, but Miwa's take on them places them closer to her mainstream aspirations. She gets to do some pounding on Tyler's "Seasons of Wither," but takes a somewhat gentler attitude toward Reed's "Who Loves the Sun." Curiously, these are the two shortest tracks on the album, as if the musical ideas couldn't sustain a longer stretch. Her original compositions are very enjoyable, and I especially liked "Mr. B.G.," a love letter to Benny Green.
The live format doesn't sound live. There is no crowd noise, no introduction, and no applause except at the very end. The sound is warm and intimate, and the engineer has done fine work. As for the rest of her trio, Greg Loughman (bass), and Scott Goulding (drums) do exactly the job they need to do. They only get an occasional chance to shine, though, as Miwa's piano dominates throughout. They do peek through on faster numbers, such as Farmer's tune, "Mox Nix," where Goulding gets a nice solo. Loughman does good work, but is often buried by Miwa's left hand.
This is a fine album, and The Yoko Miwa Trio is likely to rise quickly in jazz circles. Piano jazz fans will be particularly impressed by her dazzling technique, range of moods, and intensity. Others will just be impressed.