Jazz composer and pianist Yuko Kishimoto doesn’t see herself as someone out of the ordinary. She equates her first name as the equivalent of, say, a run-of-the-mill “Jenny,” in Japanese. However, this transplant from Hiroshima, Japan, is way more unique than her first name might imply.
She is a gifted composer whose work has been recognized and applauded by the regional jazz community. For example, Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble utilized a pair of her compositions on their recent debut album “Live at the Lark Tavern,” and veteran vibraphonist Michael Benedict recorded two more selections from her deep songbag on his latest release, “New Phase.” This weekend, she’ll be performing at Proctors’ Robb Alley in Schenectady on Friday and at Justin’s in Albany on Saturday.
Although stylish and beautiful, Kishimoto is not a wallflower to simply be adored; she is a demanding and forthright performer who leads any band she fronts with a will of iron. In other words, she doesn’t play standards. It’s only her compositions that her band plays. And if a musician can’t do that, it’s ‘hit the road, Jack.’
And that’s not a bad thing. Her musical creations are as beautiful as they are intense and very much a part of the jazz tradition. Though a teacher by day, Kishimoto blooms at night sitting behind the keyboard in places like Justin’s, 9 Maple Ave. or the Stockade Inn.
Kishimoto’s approach to composing is based not only on what she hears in her head, but also on the individual musicians or instruments that she’s writing for.
“I usually know whether it will be a combo chart or a big band chart right from the moment I have an idea for a new piece,” says Kishimoto. “If I just have an idea for a melody, it will most likely be a combo chart. If I hear the whole orchestration or counterparts to the melody in my head, it’ll definitely be a big band chart.
“Regardless of instrumentation, I think all my tunes are melodic and conceptually simple for the most part.
“In regards to the individual instruments, to me, they are more like organic beings because they are unpredictable and sometimes even opinionated. They have lives of their own, rather than ‘colors,’” she explains.
“Depending on who plays them and the specific models of the instruments, they could sound quite different. Whereas a particular shade of red on a canvas – if we’re talking about colors – will always be the same red, so different musicians and their interpretive approaches can create a broad spectrum of red hues, for example. So instead of a painter who applies colors to a canvas, I feel more like a ringmaster.”
Where does Kishimoto get the inspiration for her musical concepts?
“An idea for something new could come anywhere, anytime and quite often when I’m away from the piano,” she admits. “If the idea is strong, I remember it without trying or writing it down. It would have a plant-like, organic quality, and it develops itself into a composition. By the time I sit down to actually notate it, I usually have a fairly clear picture of the piece in its entirety.”
Coming from Japan in the early 1990s to study classical music at Michigan State University, Kishimoto worked toward completing a Bachelor’s degree in Piano Performance and a Master’s degree in Piano Pedagogy (the study of methods and techniques of teaching). It was while she was at Michigan State that several faculty members afforded her her first exposure to jazz.
“Three specific jazz faculty members come to mind,” Kishimoto recalls. “Andrew Speight – an alto sax player from Australia, who now teaches at San Francisco State – was the one who recruited me to play jazz. If I hadn’t met him, I would have never played jazz. Rodney Whitaker – a bass player from Detroit and current director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State – and Branford Marsalis, who was a visiting professor at Michigan State for a couple of years, were the other two.
“All three are phenomenal musicians, and it was a great and humbling lesson to see how dedicated and disciplined they all were,” she reveals. “They all told me to just keep trying, and they encouraged me to embrace my classical background and be myself. I consider all three of them to be my mentors.
“I did not study composition with any of them. However, they introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others, which was just as valuable.”
With dozens of her own compositions ready to be heard by the public and soon to be recorded for an upcoming CD project, in recent months Kishimoto has been playing out much more than in the past, utilizing revolving line-ups of some of the finest regional musicians in varying quartet and trio settings.
Yuko Kishimoto will be performing from 5:30-7:30pm on Friday at Proctors’ Robb Alley (next to the Muddy Cup), as part of the monthly Art Night Schenectady celebration. She’ll be leading a trio that also features bassist Mike Lawrence and drummer Dave Berger. Admission is free.
Then at 9:30pm on Saturday, Kishimoto slips behind the piano at Justin’s in Albany to lead a quartet featuring sublime saxophonist Lee Russo, bassist Lou Smaldone and drummer Conor Meehan.
Story and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk