The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Eri Yamamoto, Osaka-born and trained as a classical pianist since she was three, left Japan when she was a young woman to spend some time with her sister in New York in 1995.
"I had no ideas about jazz," she remembers.
Without knowing anything about him, she went to hear the veteran bop pianist Tommy Flanagan at a concert in Central Park.
She was astonished to see that he needed help to climb the bandstand and reach his piano.
"I thought 'Oh my gosh! I paid $40 to see that old guy?' But once he started playing it was so strong. That moment, I knew I wanted to be like him."
She managed to find another piano giant, Junior Mance, and took some lessons from him.
She listened intently to the records of the genius Bud Powell, who lived through racist and mental agony.
Then in 1996, she found intense empathy with the Paul Bley Trio and it was as if the way they played started to set her own pianism free.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a musician like Bud Powell. His life was so different from how I'd grown up. But Paul Bley's music reminded me of my own roots. I didn't have to be the next Bud Powell fake. I could play what I wanted."
Then the free jazz pianist Matthew Shipp saw her play.
"Move your finger a half-step," he said, "and you might find a different world."
She did, and she did, and since 2000 she has been performing in Greenwich Village and recording with her two bandmates, bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi.
Yamamoto has a uniquely narrative way of playing piano, as if her sounds tell stories of the everyday, capturing common moments and rendering them unforgettable.
It is excellence in the ordinary taken from the heart of jazz, when the mundane becomes special, becomes brilliant.
Her trio's recent album for the AUM Fidelity label The Next Page expresses this with an intense beauty and apparent simplicity.
The clouds through her Manhattan window, sensations walking the sidewalks of New York City, the first green leaves from trees in Central Park, watching her eight-year-old nephew swimming, a whiskey-coloured river in the Wicklow Mountains - all painted with such evocative sonic lucidity and virtual quietude.
Or read her sentence sleeve note to the quivering tune Waver - "Sometimes I wonder, 'what shall I do'?"
And she does it too in her album Redwoods of 2008 with her true sound brothers Ambrosio and Takeuchi whose string heartbeat, brushes, skins, sticks and cymbals never leave her.
"It is wonderful when you can feel our stories through our music," Yamamoto writes in her sleeve notes, and whether she tells of the glory of Californian redwoods, a bumpy bike ride on Cape Cod, or with "This Is An Apple" - one of the first sentences in English she learned in Japan, which, as she jokes, proved prophetic since she made her home in the Big Apple.
Her tunes grab at your consciousness like parables of the real, and my special one on this album is Magnolia, which very tenderly radiates a promise of betterment in a flower "of light pink colour which tells me spring is coming to town soon."
Her sophomore AUM album, In Each Day, Something Good, is just as fine with each track reflecting the title's customary optimism.
They are all her compositions, and five of them were written for the soundtrack of a classic Japanese film by Yasujiro Ozu, I was Born, But… which was made in 1932.
Ambrosio and Takeuchi are in perfect concord with the pianist's inventive melodism on tunes like Attraction Of The Moon or the sheer enhanced normality of Every Day. Ambrosio's dancing bass on the jaunty We'll Figure Out Blues creates an undertow of joyous enigma.
Duologue (2008), is a very different album, not a trio at work, but Yamamoto paired with some freer musical comrades of huge stature and experience, including bassman William Parker, drummer Hamid Drake and saxophonist Daniel Carter.
She is never intimidated or outdone though - hear her assurance all the way through, especially with the arch-resonant Parker on the ebullient Subway Song, with Carter's buoyant tenor on Violet Sky or with Drake's frame drum on the tarred and concrete reality of the overtly downhome opus Midtown Blues.
Tommy Flanagan, her first accidental inspiration, graced with a gentle keyboard touch himself, would have loved the lyrical beauty and subliminal power of Yamamoto's notes and would have instantly recognised a kindred sound in the heart of a great cosmopolis.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.