On the surface, Japanese pianist Eri Yamamoto may be the most conventional artist on the intrepid AUM Fidelity label. Yet there are virtues in Yamamoto’s music that are rarely heard elsewhere. One is the depth of her rapport with a rhythm section that has gigged with her regularly for over 13 years, making whole a steady stream of new compositions from her prolific muse. Another is Yamamoto’s ability to evoke ephemeral feelings and concepts with such precise intonation. On this new album’s opener, “Memory Dance,” she commemorates deceased friends with lyrical riffs of increasing intensity, altering their emphasis and tempo ever so slightly without milking the resonance—and trusting bassist David Ambrose and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi will provide the shading while honoring her subtlety.
That longstanding but still delicate balance is altered a bit on Firefly, however. It is the Yamamoto Trio’s first live recording, a setting that almost inevitably generates fervor, and Ambrose and Takeuchi are more prominent and forceful in the mix on these eight new originals. It enhances the caliber of their solos and exchanges with Yamamoto on the evocative title track and the sweet gambol of “Playground.” But it’s preferable when Yamamoto is more obviously first among equals, because she is best equipped to add gravitas and emotional heft to the lyricism of her songs. (Or maybe I just cherish the trio’s studio status quo.)
Firefly closes with “Real Story,” probably the most expressive blues Yamamoto has written in years, although it remains a slinky, midtempo affair. Here is the vehicle for more loose-limbed phrases, but Yamamoto, like her mentor, Tommy Flanagan, sounds august even when she’s being impish, and even as the emotions are so effectively seeping through.