Her hands flutter and dance on the keyboard, and you might as well be ensconced at a cozy table in the back corner of one of those bars that drips with atmosphere. Kayo Hiraki approaches the music with an ease and comfort as if she’s descended from George Gershwin himself. Her understanding of pacing and phrasing? Impeccable.
In her new CD called “Manhattan Sunset” the trio creates music that glows. “Kojyo No Tsuki,” derived from a Japanese song composed in 1901 by Rentaro Taki, is delicate and bluesy. What starts small and sensitive grows to its expressive climax, only to fall again back down to earth. Kayo does a masterful job here.
The improbably named “Gorilla in Safari Motel” pulls you up on the dance floor and has a perky, jokey vibe. Kayo is assertive on the energetic and colorful “Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers” and the “Pink Panther”-like rhythm that intros “59th Street Station B Line” displays her funk and sense of purpose.
When did you start piano?
My mother is a classic pianist. She used to give piano lessons to neighborhood children when I was still a baby. So piano was my most interesting “toy” growing up.
When did jazz first grab you?
When I was in my second year of high school, my friend had an older brother who showed me Thelonious Monk’s album. I was so shocked I couldn’t believe it was the same piano I practiced every day.
Who are some of your early influences?
In Japan, Takehiro Honda. When I was a teenager, his performance of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” changed my whole life.
I respect so many good pianists, like McCoy Tyner, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Steve Kuhn.
When you compose, what themes are important to you?
Absolutely, melody and harmony first. My melody has to touch a person’s heart. If I love that melody I can play the song as long as I want. I believe composing songs is the same as painting pictures of nature.
Why do you feel you can speak through this instrument?
Because jazz music is a conversation, which is the international language. We are human and we know how to express ourselves through music in many ways.
How do you deal with the challenge of different pianos in each venue?
I don’t find any challenges at all. Any piano has its limits. I perform to 100% of my abilities. That results in my best music.
How have you developed as a composer since your first album in 1998?
In these almost 20 years, I’ve met so many good artists. Also my life experiences have made me a better person which gives me a deeper sense of love.
How did you meet the members of your trio?
I’ve known the New York legend and bass player Patrick O’Leary more than 20 years through my former piano teacher, and he recommended this fantastic drummer Eric Halvorson.
I truly enjoy the lovely sessions with them. Their talents are incomparable.
Some of your favorite vocalists to collaborate with?
Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson.
How do you get fresh ideas while writing?
I love to be by myself when I compose tunes outside, experiencing nature. Sometimes at the beach I listen to the sound of waves; sometimes in a forest I smell the trees. Of course I take notes and become inspired anytime and anywhere.
What inspired “Manhattan Sunset”?
Actually itself! One day I was driving on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. It was Christmastime, I remember, and I saw a huge orange-colored sky after sundown in the west, on the Hudson River. It was just huge, everything around me looked orange. Unbelievably beautiful, and the moment stuck in my brain.
What tracks do you particularly like?
The first tune “59th Street Station B Line” is named for the big NYC subway station (also called Columbus Circle) which has many lines crossing it. It’s chaos in the Big Apple. Its sound image is hustle, machinery and noise.
Another tune is my composition titled “June In Paris,” such a flowing, melancholic melody played by chromatic harmonica that brings you to the Seine River in late afternoon.
What was the best part of producing this album?
Meeting and collaborating with these world-famous people who helped to make this album.
How has it been received so far?
I am getting good reviews from jazz magazines and websites. Jazz Weekly said:
“Pianist Kayo Hiraki leads a flexible bop trio with Patrick O’Leary/b and Eric Halvorson/d along with a handful of guests through some well composed originals and a few covers. Her touch is confident as she slinks with O’Leary’s bass on “Tarte aux Fraises” and “59th Street Station B Line” while even singing like a chanteuse on “My Melancholy Baby.” [For the full interview check out http://www.jazzweekly.com/2017/12/kayo-manhattan-sunset/]
What do you like about performing in Japan?
The Japanese people have enjoyed American jazz music since after World War II. I hear jazz in many places as background music in hotels and restaurants in Japan – even in nursing homes. They treat us with very much respect.
Where do you enjoy touring in Europe?
I’ve enjoyed many different, wonderful cities like Paris, Vienna and Hamburg etc. But in Northern Ireland, I found the audiences loving and sentimental.
What do US audiences most like about your music?
They swing almost every night at Arturo’s, the venue I perform in NYC. I see audiences start to move and dance with their smiling faces when they hear me play.
What excites you most about your new music?
If we don’t perform our music, it’s just like fresh fish or beef with vegetables. We need good recipes and great chefs. The musicians I collaborated with have made my compositions into five stars restaurants’ full course dinners!
This is my life. It is music. I love it and live with it. I feel very lucky.
Thank you so much! I hope I can share this full sense of happiness through music, especially my new CD “Manhattan Sunset.”
For more information, visit www.kayojazzpiano.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Kayo Hiraki.
© Debbie Burke 2018