Review of Junko Onishi - 'Baroque'

     After a notable decade of work in the 90s after graduating from Berklee, Japanese pianist Junko Onishi took almost a decade off from recording and performing in public.  She makes a high-profile and ambitious return to recording and the stage with her new release on Verve, Baroque (Verve 2010)..
     Although Onishi has been performing in solo or piano-trio formats, she is given the opportunity to flesh out her arrangements and press the playing of a fuller band – Herlin Riley on drums, Nicholas Payton on trumpet, James Carter on woodwinds, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, and Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker on bass – that’s right, two basses.  Baroque features a number of impressive Onishi composition, eclectic takes on Mingus and Monk, and a pair of surprisingly earnest chestnuts.
     Onishi’s “Tutti” opens the album, with Riley joined by Roland Guerro on conga, and the percussion drives the tune forward into a turbulent, percussive top that gives way to a warped solo from Carter, who wields the tenor with belligerence, leaving Payton and Gordon to clean up behind him.  Onishi’s own solo is almost in the spirit of a chordless ensemble, as her own statement is a vigorous hammering assault on the keyboard in which matches her percussionists’ pounding with her own. All together, they smash the hell out of the song – quite wonderfully.   Shifting moods, “The Mother’s (Where Johnny Is),” begins in a minor mode, almost as a dirge, and then shifts to a swinging number that offers Jordan a chance to display some real gutbucket chops.  And for all the smash-and-dash dissonance of the previous song, Onishi lays down a thoughtful, spare solo with space to breathe.
     Easily the most audacious composition on the album is “The Threepenny Opera,” which starts off with Veal and Whitaker going back and forth on bass for a couple of minutes until they reconcile their differences and settle into the bottom end of things.  Making the most of a full 17 minutes, this Onishi composition moves from section to section, some amusingly dissonant and disjointed, others a bit too slick, and all in keeping with the twisted humor of the Brecht/Weil musical.  In its loose playing and movement from theme to theme, it resembles nothing less than one of Charles Mingus’ extended works, but the solo piano section is like nothing Mingus ever did.  Onishi’s hands are fast, but her musical imagination is faster, and, in the liner notes, she is quick to credit Jaki Byard for some of the ideas in that passage.
The Mingus influence is articulated clearly on the ensemble’s take “Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters” by the Angry Man of Jazz, which doesn’t take too many chances and is all the more refreshing to hear.  Onishi’s solo is full of the uncompromising humor Mingus might have appreciated.  The Anderson-Grouya ballad “Flamingo” offers everyone a chance to be lovely and lyrical together, and each solo is full and dreamy.  No complaints here.   “The Street Beat/52nd Street Theme” is another tune that satisfies a certain playing-test that some tunes seem to offer here, as it’s Onishi’s take on the familiar chord progressions from “I Got Rhythm,” which underlie so many other standards.  Check another one off the list. Test passed.
     Onishi’s rendition of “Stardust” – featuring the pianist alone with a familiar standard – is baroque indeed, as it seems she has chosen a well-worn tune to show what might be considered her approach to playing: not trying out musical ideas from bar to bar, but trying on whole musical styles.  Just when you think she’s thinking about Art Tatum, she’ on to Thelonious Monk, and from there to Cecil Taylor.  On “Stardust,” the chameleon act is more obvious, but on “Memories of You,” the solo number which closes the album, Onishi seems to have a more integrated approach, and hence her personality comes through in the end.  In many ways, these two songs are my favorites on the release.
    The title of Onishi’s “return” album is likely slanted toward the ironic, as the pianist’s talent as a player and composer is so evident, and Verve’s presentation of her so luxuriant (Two bassists? You got it! Three horns? Say no more!), Baroque doesn’t miss any opportunity impress, and one can’t really help but be impressed.  Hopefully, the public won’t have to wait almost another decade for Onishi’s next album.  Something a bit more reserved  -- are you taking notes, Verve? – would be just fine.  I suggest  a piano trio format, without all the baroque commotion, just to give everyone a little more time to list to Onishi’s undeniable musical gifts.

Junko Onishi, piano
Nicholas Payton, trumpet
James Carter, woodwinds
Wycliffe Gordon, trombone
Reginald Veal, bass
Rodney Whitaker, bass
Herlin Riley, drums
Roland Guerro, conga

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