Interview with Chihiro Yamanaka Avellino, 12 febbraio 2011 by Nico Conversano photo by Francesco Truono
It's a long time since japanese pianist Chihiro Yamanaka chosen piano trio
as her main vehicle of expression. Musically trained between Royal Academy of Music
in London and Berklee College of Music in Boston, this gifted musician has been
the recipient of countless awards in Japan, Europe and America, where she now resides.
Her recordings received important acknowledgements from critics and fans and her
live performances are distinguished for energy and great swing. We met her during
her last "Forever Begins European Tour".
When and how did you first discover jazz music?
I discovered jazz when I was a kid, maybe ten years old. My father was a big music
fan, especially classical music. Once he went to a concert of a very famous clarinet
player, Eiji Kitamura. He was a kind of japanese
Benny Goodman. He bought a vinyl record and took it home. The artwork
of the Lp cover was very different compared to classical music records, generally
more serious. That's why I felt interested by it. Then I listened to it and I discovered
a sound so different from anything I had listened before. I didn't know what was
happening melodically and harmonically but I found it very interesting. So that
was the first time I listened to jazz.
Who were the jazz musicians that make you decide to become a jazz pianist?
It happened when I saw Geri Allen playing in TV in a japanese jazz festival.
It was so great to see that female musicians too can play jazz so strongly. That
was the first time I considered to pursue the career as a jazz pianist. I used to
be a classical player since I was a kid and I didn't know so many female musicians
playing jazz. What she was playing was so new to me. She is straight ahead but she's
also opened to different kinds of music. She brought me to open up more. That's
what I love about jazz.
Jazz standards never lacks in each of your albums, always performed in original
and unpredictable ways. What's for you the neverending quality laying in jazz standards
that make them so everlasting?
The jazz standards are a strong statement, especially melodies. That's why people
call it standards. Even when the musicians added their own arrangements, the melody
never ever break it down because of their strong characteristics. That's why they
can be played over and over.
Most of your discography is performed in piano trio. What's for you the most
suitable aspect of playing with this kind of ensemble?
I also did piano solo, but I never recorded it. I played with orchestras, accompanied
singers and played with other instruments. But piano trio is a very tight unit for
me. I've been very influenced by
whose production is mainly in piano trio. His idea was that each three instruments
had to have the same importance inside the trio. I love to play in trio because
the conversation is very interactive. In a duo is just a person to person dialogue
and when in four people is a little bit too much because somebody is standing up
while someone else is following. In a trio there's that balance that make things
more interesting. Three is a magic number in which everybody can do their own stuff
and at the same time listen to each other.
In the past years you have been performing with some of the best rhythmic sections
on the scene. In your last album "Forever Begins" the rhythmic section is composed
by Kendrick Scott on drums and Ben Williams on bass. Which are the
skills you're looking for in the fellow musicians you choose to play with?
Kendrick Scott is a friend of mine since we were students so I didn't need
to look for. Usually I have to record at a rate of one album a year, so when I'm
at a recording, playing new stuff and arrangements, is very important to play with
a good rhythm section to explore the music. I need some tension, some character
in my musicians. Everybody wants to play with a good rhythmic section and I'm lucky
to have friends inside it.
Do you feel any differences in approach or feeling whether you're playing with
an American, a Japanese or an European rhythmic section?
Not particularly, but the language is different. When we play we have accents. The
music is very related to spoken language and every musician has a tendency to relate
to it. It's very interesting to notice it, even if we don't need to use words when
we're playing. The colour of some language and their accents make the musical exchange
You are also a member of Diva Jazz Orchestra, a big band composed only by women.
What can you tell us about this experience?
It's a great big band and it's composed by incredible musicians. They also won the
Downbeat reader's poll and they're very popular. I was influenced by how they play
and how they treat the music. I don't care about they're women or not: they're great
musicians. I have been influenced by big bands music and that's why I compose. The
trio can be a big band too. We mostly play standards in different arrangements.
I've recorded three albums with this ensemble.
What's improvisation for you and what do you think when you're improvising?
I can't control it. If I control too much the performance would be destroyed. You
have to be a little bit more organic. I don't need to control everything, I have
to let it go. I just see what's goin' to happen. In classical music I can predict
what is going to happen next every time or most of the times 'cause you have a sheet
music you already know. In jazz it's hard to tell. A big part of jazz is not predictable
all the times.
How much of you're being japanese is inside your way of playing jazz, a music
that is so deeply rooted to American culture?
I never paid attention to a it. Of course, there are many influences in me, but
I never had consciousness of whether they're connected to my country or not. Maybe
italians are different and tend to ostentate their belonging to their culture. Japanese
don't think like that. We don't have serious consciousness of being japanese. That's
a consequence of the long period of isolation we lived during Edo period (1603-1838),
after which we opened more to the world. That's why we are very associated to Western
Today Japan is one of the biggest market for jazz. What's for you the reason
japanese people like jazz?
I think not just jazz but any kind of art. We really love art in general.
Why do you chose the word "Forever Begins"to entitle your new album?
It was written outside of the recording studio. That's where I took it.
Can you tell me a few good reasons to come back and play in Italy?
Italy is definitely a jazz country. Look at the New York scene. There are so many
italian musicians playing jazz there. Here is where jazz is growing now. So many
interesting musicians come from Italy and they're very popular abroad.