Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am

The recent prolific output of Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara may have spurred her counterpart from Generation X to resume her recording career in earnest.

Junko Onishi first made her mark in the United States in the early 1990s after graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She worked extensively with saxophonist Kenny Garrett and also played with Jackie McLean, Phil Woods and Joe Lovano, among others, as well as recording several noteworthy albums as a leader before relocating back to her homeland.

A post-bop pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, she also developed into a gifted composer before making a bizarre career move with her fusion rock-based album Fragile, released in 1998.

The late Richard Cook observed that the record seemed to leave her 'at a stylistic dead end' and 10 years passed before she recorded her next album as a leader.

She came back in 2009 with Musical Moments, which brought her back to the territory in which she had made her name, playing originals, three Eric Dolphy tunes and a smattering of standards. The album was her last for the Somethin' Else label. She then signed with Verve, for whom she makes her debut with Baroque.

Onishi returned to New York to cut the album, and recruited a strong cast of supporting musicians to make the most of some ambitious compositions and arrangements. The highlight is an almost 20-minute original called The Threepenny Opera, inspired by the Brecht Weill musical, which includes a long solo piano improvisation based on a score by the late pianist Jaki Byard, one of Onishi's teachers. Byard, who died in 1999 of gunshot wounds in a still unexplained incident, was best known for his association with Charles Mingus, whose Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters is also included here.

One of the pleasures of this set is hearing Onishi break out from the solo and trio formats she normally favours to work with Nicholas Payton on trumpet, James Carter on saxophones, bass clarinet and flute, and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. Conguero Roland Guerrero makes a swinging contribution to the upbeat opener, Tutti, and bass and drums are supplied by Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley. The bass is doubled on four tracks by Rodney Whitaker.

The change of label and return to New York seem to have rejuvenated Onishi - let us hope there are more sessions of this quality to come.

Take Three

Three of Junko Onishi's best albums from the 1990s.

Wow (1992, Somethin' Else): an impressive debut, recorded in Tokyo with her Japanese Trio and including a fine interpretation of Monk's Brilliant Corners, winning Onishi her first Jazz of Japan Award from Swing Journal magazine.

Live at the Village Vanguard/Village Vanguard II (1994, Somethin' Else): any pianist making a trio recording at the Village Vanguard inevitably does so in the shadow of Bill Evans, but Onishi nevertheless hit a career high point with these two sets recorded with Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums.

Piano Quintet Suite (1995, Somethin' Else): Five Onishi originals, including the title track, rub shoulders with Charles Mingus' Peggy's Blue Skylight, Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress and Then Blue Silk along with Billy Strayhorn's Take the A Train.