Junko Onishi

Biography

JAPANESE PIANO SENSATION, JUNKO ONISHI
MAKES VERVE DEBUT WITH “BAROQUE”
IN FALL 2010

With all-star ensemble incl. Nicholas Payton, James Carter and others.

“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that blues and swing,” states Junko Ohnishi, one of Japan’s most prominent jazz pianists, flatly.

Born in the ancient city Kyoto, Junko started to play piano at four. Later she moved to Tokyo and got enthusiastic about jazz when she was introduced to the records of Thelonious Monk as high school student. After graduating high school, she went to the States to enter Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 1989, she started to be active in New York City and honed her skills by attending jam sessions held in various clubs like Augies (now called Smoke) while working in the groups of such luminaries like Betty Carter, Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean.

Shortly after she came back to Japan, Junko signed a contract with EMI Japan and released her first album called “WOW”. The album was selected by numerous musical magazines as the best jazz album of the year by the Japanese artists, which made a young female pianist who had only been known to the connoisseurs into a focal figure. She continued to release one or two albums per year. All of them were very highly acclaimed and some of them were released worldwide through the Blue Note label, which was unprecedented by any Japanese jazz musician.

Junko also recorded with artists like Billy Higgins, Jackie McLean, Joe Lovano and Phil Woods (besides, she accompanied such legends as Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin and George Coleman at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festivals, the premier jazz event held annually in Japan during the 90s).

In May 1994, Junko came on stage at the Village Vanguard, the prestigious jazz club in Greenwich Village NYC, which was the first time that a Japanese-led band performed there for an entire week. She also performed with her own group at many of the renowned jazz festivals in Europe such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

However, in 2000, Junko stopped performing in public and chose to start a new journey of her own quest. It was not until 2007 that she enjoyed her “harvest”. All of her fans waiting for her comeback naturally showed great expectations about her new release, but she still waited to get ripe for one.

In 2009, Junko’s new album “Musical Moment”, the first in eleven years, was finally released and turned out to be her best seller. Many fans raved about the “resurrection of the star pianist”, and there were even more new fans who realized that there is a “truly awesome jazz pianist” here in Japan.

In March 2010, Junko headed for New York. Her new and old peers Nicholas Payton, James Carter, Wycliffe Gordon, Reginald Veal, Rodney Whitaker and Herlin Riley were waiting for her in the recording studio. They swung like mad, roared their blues and flowed at will.

The new album “Baroque”, Junko’s debut from Verve, consists of her originals and some classical materials of the 20th century. ‘Tutti’ featuring master of the drums Herlin Riley and congas by Roland Guererro, ‘The Mother’s (Where Johnny Is)’ and ‘The Threepenny Opera’ showcase her rare talent as pianist, bandleader and composer. In fact, ‘The Threepenny Opera’, the 20-minute tour-de-force starting from the heavy-hitting interplay by bassists Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker, had been performed several times on stage in Japan, but those performances were mostly in trio or solo-piano format and thus didn’t fully realize her original concept. “Horn section, especially the trombone, was indispensable,” says Junko, and it was not until this recording welcoming virtuoso Wycliffe Gordon on the board that she could satisfy her need for the composition. For her solo piano section, incidentally, she uses a motif left by Jaki Byard whom she calls her mentor.

‘Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters’ was composed by Charles Mingus. All musicians perform as if they are praying in a huge cathedral. The composition is followed by ‘Flamingo’ where Junko pays honor to the version from this great composer’s 1957 release “Tijuana Moods”. ‘The Street Beat/52nd Street Theme’ is a bebop tune to which little attention is paid these days. She decided to add this rarity to her repertoire when she was fascinated by its live performance by Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell recorded at the Birdland club NYC in 1950. And now over the half century since then, Junko and three horn players (Nicholas, James and Wycliffe) relays their inspiring solo full of Be-Bop spirit.

‘Stardust’ and ‘Memories of You’ are performed as solo piano pieces. “To me, solo piano is a form of expression that reveals everything I have cultivated,” says Junko. “So, it is scary, but, because of that, it gives me a sense of achievement.” Here she pays homage to Art Tatum, one of her most favorite pianists. “Art Tatum’s music is timeless,” says Junko. “His harmony, his improvisation…he will sound new eternally.”

The cover photography is by Mika Ninagawa, one of the prominent Japanese photographers (she has put on solo exhibitions in London, Paris and Berlin). The collaboration between the most creative talents in photography and jazz worlds has already attracted much attention in Japan.

“Baroque” proves Junko Ohnishi’s true maturity. Listen!

Since she began her recording career in 1992, Junko Onishi has distinguished herself as a forceful, original pianist, a unique composer and a master at reinterpreting jazz standards by everyone from Duke Ellington to Eric Dolphy. The bulk of her discography has been in a trio format which is fine by me because I can't get enough of her amazing piano playing. But on BAROQUE, her Verve debut, she greatly expands her sonic palette with three horns, two basses and drums, giving new dimensions to her inventive arrangements. Bassists Reginald Veal and Rodney Whitaker and drummer Herlin Riley have worked on-and-off with Junko since the early '90s. Knowing her music well, they make invaluable contributions to this recording. New to Junko's orbit are James Carter, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon, all recognized masters on their chosen instruments. They breathe vivid new sounds into Junko's music and into her reinterpretations of Charles Mingus, Sir Charles Thompson and Hoagy Carmichael. Each one solos masterfully, stoked by Junko's unorthodox and exciting comping. This is an album of truly great material, arrangements and performances.