Although traditional folk songs have been a favorite source for classical composers from Brahms to Bartók, they don’t have a corresponding place in the jazz canon. And that’s a pity, as pianist and composer Eri Yamamoto makes plain with her Goshu Ondo Suite.
Composed for choir and jazz trio, it’s based around a traditional circle-dance song that’s performed at festivals in the Shiga prefecture of Japan. Typically, “Goshu Ondo” is performed in a call-and-response format, with a leader singing the main lyrics and the crowd answering key lines. Although shamisen (or, these days, electric guitar) is often used for accompaniment, the main interplay is between the voices and taiko drums.
Yamamoto retains that drums-against-voices energy in her suite, but this isn’t World Music fusion. Instead, her writing plays off the tune’s melodic resilience while emphasizing its rhythmic potential. Although the suite opens with a choral statement of the melody, which Yamamoto’s piano and David Ambrosio’s bass support with modal harmony, the real action lies with drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, who gradually builds the central pulse into a swinging stew of polyrhythms. Although the dynamics barely move past mezzoforte, the range of rhythmic intensity is astonishing.
The rest builds from that. Yamamoto’s choral writing keeps its focus on the rhythmic quality of the Japanese lyrics—for instance, the repeated “yoiyamakka, yoiyamakka” refrain in Part 2—while finding a way to make that distinctly Japanese cadence feel jazzy. Even better, she makes harmony and counterpoint seem a natural part of the music, even though both are foreign to the original.
However much the Goshu Ondo Suite showcases Yamamoto’s writing and arranging, the album itself succeeds mostly because of the creative balance maintained by her trio. Yamamoto, Ambrosio, and Takeuchi play in a conversational style that ultimately defines a sense of community, and nothing could be truer to the spirit of the original “Goshu Ondo” than that.
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