Michika Fukumori’s ‘Quality Time’ reflects perfect jazz moments
Various Artists - Topic

Throughout her second major album, Michika Fukumori remains faithful to the straight-ahead jazz idiom. On fast and slow numbers, a Jobim standard to the Great American Songbook, to four of her own original pieces — 12 in all — the classically trained Japanese pianist proves a quick and appreciative jazz study.

Quality Time on Summit Records came out on June 3 and features the quintessential jazz trio: Fukumori on piano, Billy Drummond handling drums, and Aidan O’Donnell locking in on bass. Produced by legendary jazz pianist Steve Kuhn of the John Coltrane Quartet, everything on the album is done with an intimacy very familiar to traditional jazz musicians and fans.

To the untrained, restless ear, however, the trio’s impeccably smooth transition from note to note may seem nothing more than background music for mindless cocktail chatter. Much of Fukumori’s playing does seem to come out of a sense of genre worship, the replication of a dutiful student rather than an original artist with something new to say or a revolutionary trying to change the game.

The playing overall is quite respectful, if a bit bland. Fukumori knows her way around the basic roaming styles of the jazz musician, from the honky tonk in her composition, “Cat Walk,” to the forever standards quality of her other piece, “Luz,” to Jobim’s “Someone To Light Up My Life.”

Nothing really stands out, though. “Solitude,” a somber Duke Ellington cover, sets the nice and easy mood — and doesn’t really vary from there. The few moments when Fukumori as a pianist has a chance to shine, she does so intensively, in quiet, unobtrusive moments, in how much she presses the notes of that “Solitude,” in the way she lets the moments breathe from her melodic intro to O’Donnell’s crawling figure of a bass.

Musically, “The Story I Want To Tell You,” “Luz,” “Cat Walk,” and the title track in 6/8 time represent her slow, steady growth as a jazz artist soaking up the heady atmosphere in New York (since 2000), studying under bassist Ron Carter and pianist Geri Allen at City College, private lessons with one of her heroes, the producer of this album, Steve Kuhn, the regular jazz stints at the Blue Note, the Kitano, Cleopatra’s Needle, recording her first album as a bandleader, Infinite Thoughts in 2004 with Drummond on drums and bassist David Finck, and produced again by Kuhn.

On a personal level, two of the songs represent her deep love for her homeland. The love is there in her ability to hold onto the melody even when she and the others stray in their interpretive solos. It’s very evident in “The Story I Want To Tell You,” perhaps a spark of originality, a hint of feeling in her storytelling, as she goes from ballad to a rolling march — all while keeping the melody in check.

She wrote “Luz” “as a prayer for Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake in March 2011.”

Michika Fukumori arranged the tunes on the album Steve Kuhn produced for her. “I was a big fan of Steve’s since I started to listen, study, and play jazz in Japan. Studying with him is my dream come true. He’s my teacher, my mentor, and my musical hero,” she said in a press release for Mouthpiece Music.

For her second album, Quality Time shows the potential for great originality and even more stories to build on.

Artist quotes from a Mouthpiece Music press release.