A pithy observation from American naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson graces the cardboard gatefold of Central Line, pianist Art Hirahara’s third project for the Positone label: “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” The importance of ancestry in a more historical sense folds indelibly into not only Hirahara’s audibly observable actions, but also his carefully considered approach to his instrument whether rooted in his Japanese American heritage or the diaphanous jazz lineage of which he is a modest, but consequential part.
A former student of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and California Institute of the Arts, Hirahara traded left coast for right and settled into the New York City jazz scene some thirteen years ago. Several of the myriad creative connections made over that time span are evident in his chosen cast of colleagues for the date. Bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston complete the vibrant core trio with sought-after saxophonist Donny McCaslin guesting on four tracks. Hirahara handles composerly commitments on a dozen of the fourteen pieces for a set that clocks to just shy of an hour.
A brisk opening title piece for trio contrasts with a lush solo reading of the traditional Japanese folk tune “Kuroda Bushi”. Hirahara’s touch and placement on the latter is particularly ruminative and insular, making the warm and inviting chords that comprise “Astray” all the moreso by comparison. McCaslin’s verdant presence matches the delicately languorous contributions of the rhythm section in terms of palpable allure and once again the leader’s unwillingness to rush the proceedings pays off. “Little Giant” reveals another side of the tenor/piano accord with the pair taking the opening minutes to playfully joust before their peers join in the fun.
Measured pacing also flavors the incremental architecture of “Drawing with Light” as Hirahara’s gilded progression gains heft from Oh’s cloaking bass line and carefully placed accents from Royston’s corner. A solo interlude of gently cascading chords resets the compass to a rising ballad tempo tinged with emotional shadow. If there’s a single criticism to apportion it’s a slight one and apparent in the passages where Hirahara’s effusiveness threatens to spill over into sentimental excess as on the concluding interpretation of “Yuyake Koyake”. Fortunately, those moments are few and a fine equilibrium between restraint and emotion remains the norm. The ancestors of the innumerable actions ensconced on this disc are honored in full.
Derek Taylor – Dusted Magazine
Pianist and composer Art Hirahara, born and raised in the Bay Area of San Francisco, has worked with vocalists Freddie Cole and Stacey Kent as well as baritone saxophonist Fred Ho and trumpeter Dave Douglas. “Central Line” is his fourth album as a leader and his third for Posi-Tone Records. The new album changes the focus a bit from his previous two (2011’s “Noble Path” and 2015’s “Libations and Meditations“) in that, sprinkled into the 14 tracks, there are four solo piano performances and four that add tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin to the trio of Linda Oh (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums).
The variety of settings is a big plus in that the program moves from the introspective solo pieces to heartfelt ballads to more uptempo tracks. McCaslin’s appearances each stand out. He and Royston stoke the fires on “Kin Ka: Gold Coin“, the hardest-hitting piece, while his full-toned and emotional solo on “Astray” moves from sweet melody to blues to impressionism. “Entanglement” also moves between lyricism and hard blowing for both the tenor and piano solos, bolstered by the splendid bass work and Royston’s fiery percussion. McCaslin and Hirahara team up for a playful duet for the first third of “Little Giant” that continues in its buoyant mood as the rhythm section and ratchets up the energy.
The pianist shares the opening melody of the title track with Ms. Oh; their interactions through the high-speed song, punctuated by Royston dances around the drums, is pure delight. Yes, their playing is technically impressive but the melodic aspects of the piece remain front-and-center. “Drawing With Light” is a perfect title, a ballad with a strong emotional feel that picks up in speed and intensity, the piece culminating in a two-handed piano solo abetted by the flying bass lines and powerful drumming. There’s a similar feel to “Sensitive Animal” but, while the energy certainly picks up in the middle, the piece stays on a lyrical track. Lyricism also stands out on the lovely trio version of Chico Buarque’s “As Minhas Meninas.” Ms. Oh’s fine solo is a melodic treat as is her work on the free-form “Redwood Thaw“, a short piece (1:56) on which the listener feels as if one is intruding on a private moment.
The solo pieces each have a story. “Kuroda Bushi” is a traditional song from Japan with a stately melody line while “Introspect” is a lovely tone poem, also with a well-drawn melody. “Tracing The Line” builds slowly, the melody unfolding and opening up not unlike a Keith Jarrett solo improvisation. The closing track is the beautiful and soulful “Yuyake Koyake” – composed by Kanichi Shimofusa (1898-1962), its lovely folk melody describes a late afternoon sky and is a perfect close to an impressive program.
“Central Line” deserves your attention. The music that Art Hirahara created for this program gives the listener an insight not only into his fine musicianship but also into his creative mind. Each song is a story built from his experiences as a pianist, composer, world traveler, accompanist, and human being. Enjoy this journey.
Here’s a piano man bold enough to make a modern, mainstream date and doing it while surrounding himself with hell raisers like Donny McCaslin, Rudy Royston and Linda Oh. Swinging easy but to the left, you won’t mistake this
for cocktail jazz but Hirahara could do a killer job on that form if he every chose to take the easy way out. Piano fans take note, this is a date not to be missed. Hot stuff.