On Quality Time, Michika performs four originals and eight standards taken from Samba to Show Tunes to Standards and she makes them her own. With her on the album is bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Billy Drummond. The album is produced by Steve Kuhn. Both Drummond and Kuhn were with Michiko for her first album, as well. It shows.
The album opens with the always enjoyable Jule Styne classic, Make Someone Happy. It is a standard trio approach that is made different by Michika’s own phrasing and dynamics. O’Donnell and Drummond are excellent together and in support of Michika’s melodic lines and swinging it beautifully. O’Donnell’s bass solo is a splendid retelling of the melody and shows why he is on the album. Nice ending.
The second track is from one of my very favorite composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim. The lovely Someone to Light Up My Life gets Drummond doing the Brazilian rhythms and O’Donnell bouncing alongside.
Michika’s take on the Samba is exquisite. Her classically-trained precision does not inhibit her improvisational explosiveness in any measure. In fact, she follows the rule that Oscar Peterson’s father laid down—learn classical music and let it be your vocabulary for Jazz.
The Story I Want to Tell You is an original waltz that, she says, “represents my deepest feelings for my homeland.” It is warm and generous, just like the people of Mie. It carries an old-soul feel, like the people of Mie.
Mie Prefecture is the home to the Ise Shrine, Japan’s oldest shrine. Young couples go there together, starting their young love in the oldest of venerated sites. Old people go there and touch something far older than they. The story of the young and the old are narrated warmly by Michika’s composition and performance.
Luz is also an original composition. Luz means “light” and the song was written as a meditation on the tragic Tohoku earthquake in March of 2011.
O’Donnell glides slowly beneath as Michika expresses the melancholy and the memory in this delicate prayer offering. Drummond’s cymbal washes roll like tears.
Producer Steve Kuhn wrote Looking Back. In fact, it should be said rather that Composer Steve Kuhn produced the album. Michika refers to Kuhn as “my teacher, my mentor and my musical hero.”
Michika treats the piece with a lively reverence and O’Donnell and Drummond work it over from both angles of the rhythm section. Kuhn must have enjoyed every moment of this. It is indeed a beautifully written piece and the trio makes it come alive in all the brightest colors.
Quality Time is another Michika original number. The sweet swing is lovely and O’Donnell treats his solo with equally measured delicacy. She can attack like Thelonious Monk and swing like Bill Evans without imitating either of them.
Cat Walk swings as sultry as the title suggests. Michika admits to being a cat lover and wrote this Blues piece for them. O’Donnell and Drummond slink languidly along with the piano in this feline tone poem.
O”Donnell’s solo sounds like a strutting tomcat and Drummond offers a midnight rumble. Michika paints a vivid image. Cool as a cat.
Duke Ellington’s gorgeous Solitude follows after. This ballad gets a bluesy treatment, as well. Under Michika’s arrangement, the emotional quality is almost palpable.
Velas by Ivan Lin is a return to the Latin sounds that Michika understands and delivers so well. O’Donnell offers another splendid bass solo. The guy never disappoints. Drummond plays with such understated grace that he compels attention.
Again, however, Michika strikes with such impressive delicacy and alternating power that her own dynamics are irresistible. Her range is phenomenal and her interpretations are stellar.
Two compositions by Leonard Bernstein follow. The first is Lucky to Be Me from On the Town. Michika and the guys swing the piece delightfully. This is one of the most obvious examples of the vocal quality of her playing.
O’Donnell takes a cool solo and gives a fine statement. Drummond is straight-up swing.
The second Bernstein piece is the classic, Somewhere. This was the adagio from West Side Story. The composition is… well, it’s Bernstein, isn’t it? It is beautiful and heart-breaking. And Michiko renders it just so in this piano solo performance.
She has a way of interpreting that keeps the vitality of the original while breathing something entirely fresh into it. She, in fact, breathes herself into it and that is the best we can ask.
That’s All is the 1952 classic by Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes that was first recorded by Nat King Cole. What was originally a ballad turns into hard-swing from this trio. O’Donnell again works this over feverishly and Drummond answers with his understated rolling thunder.
From the originals to the covers, Michika Fukumori makes them all her own. Her reinvention of the covers is stunning and her own compositions reveal a passion and compassion that is shown brightly through her performance artistry with O’Donnell and Drummond. Quality Time is high Jazz and we are fortunate to be reminded what that is supposed to sound like.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl