By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
I recently received an e-mail inviting me to soak up some inspirational music On-line by Los Angeles based pianist, Yuko Mabuchi. During this time of quarantine and stressful confinement, she offers her perspective on Mozart. I happily clicked on the website above where Yuko has combined classical music with her jazz arrangement. It’s quite entertaining. Using the inspiration for her composition titled, “Little Mo,” Yuko borrows from Mozart’s Piano Sonata #11 and intrigues us with her self-quarantined production, adding programmed drums and bass.
Let me tell you a little bit about Yuko Mabuchi. She’s a wisp of a woman, petite and delicate, until she sits down at the piano. Then, before our very eyes, she transforms into a powerful giant on the keyboard. I witnessed this myself, on May 8 of 2016, when she was a special guest of piano master, Billy Mitchell at the historic Maverick’s Flat nightclub. Once her slender fingers touched the piano keys, we were all captivated by Ms. Mabuchi’s enormous energy and spirited performance. Her leg kicks out (reminding me a bit of the late-great Dorothy Donegan) and she sometimes jumps up from the piano bench. Yuko throws her head back, caught in the joy of the musical moment. I watched her feet dance, unencumbered beneath the piano bench.
Born June 21st in Fukui, Japan, a small seaside city West of Tokyo, little Yuko was surrounded by music early on. Her mother is a classical piano teacher and Yuko began studying the piano at age four. Her father played Earth, Wind and Fire records and listened to Latin music and the Brazilian jazz of Jobim. As a child, Yuko was surrounded by a variety of musical genres and she embraced them all. At first, she played piano by ear, picking out the melodies and soaking up the grooves of the popular music scene, including pop and hip hop. She mastered classical study, but there was a freedom she found in jazz that touched something deep inside of her.
As a teenager, Yuko tuned-in to the Japanese jazz station on her radio. She became familiar with Oscar Petersen and Herbie Hancock. When she attending concerts in Japan, she was further inspired by the work of artists like Gerald Clayton Jr., Donald Vega, Kenny Baron, Junior Mance, Hiromi and Cyrus Chestnut. She was still studying classical music, but after high school Yuko attended the AN School of Music in Kyoto, Japan. Under the tutelage of Kunihiro Kameda, she blossomed. Right away, he noticed the young student’s amazing potential and affinity toward jazz. Professor Kameda had once lived in the United States. One of the friendships he made was with our own West Coast drummer, Kenny Elliott. So, Kameda-san called Kenny and with the drummer’s help, made arrangements for his student to study in the Los Angeles area. He suggested that if Yuko really was serious about pursuing jazz, she should go to America where it was bred and born. Yuko’s father agreed, although both he and his wife were concerned about their daughter’s jazz direction. Her mother had hoped their talented daughter would become a famous, classical, concert pianist. Neither parent had in mind that their first born would pursue a jazz pianist career.
In 2010, Yuko Mabuchi arrived in Southern California and enrolled at the Music Performance Academy in Alhambra, a California community of mainly Asian and Latino cultures with a sprinkling of others. MPA (Music Performance Academy) was Japanese owned and brought many Japanese students to America encouraging their study of American music and artistic culture. This is where I first met Yuko, because I taught Artist Development and Vocals at that school for approximately three years; part time. Billy Mitchell and Gary Shunk became the young lady’s mentors, while soaking up the recordings of Monte Alexander, George Duke and Gene Harris. She hunkered down, learning the funk and groove that Mitchell was teaching her and the technique and improvisation that Shunk inspired. She studied voice and artist development with me and I saw her growth and willingness to practice and challenge herself. Under the direction of Billy Mitchell, she recorded her first demo project entitled, “Red Special.” It was sponsored by MPA and featured her original composition skills.
Yuko donated her time as the accompanist for the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony and took great pride in inspiring young people from that Los Angeles inner-city. It wasn’t long before she began performing all over town; at Catalina Jazz Bar, downtown at the Biltmore Hotel, in Old Town Pasadena at the Levitt Pavilion Summer Concert Series, at small jazz clubs and popular hotel chains like the Crowne Plaza. Her name and reputation were growing.
Yuko Mabuchi’s first full length CD was released in 2011 on Vista Records titled, “Waves.” Clearly, she was becoming a self-assured and talented composer. In 2013, Yuko returned home triumphant, new CD in hand, with her artistic development evident. She busied herself with work, forming a jazz trio and performing at the Jazz Spot J in Shinjuku, Tokyo and also as a participant of the Fukui Jazz Festival in 2014 and 2015. She also appears as a regular soloist at Keio Plaza in Tokyo.
Her next CD release on Vista Records was “My Life,” in 2014. Again, her composer skills were flowering and featured. This time, she added jazz reedman, the great Justo Almario on flute as well as smooth jazz saxophonist, Andre Delano. This album is a testament to her growth and polish as an artist and as a jazz musician. In 2017, she released “The Yuko Mabuchi Trio” on Yarlung Records. It was recorded ‘live’ at USCs Cammilleri Hall. This was followed by a “Tribute to Miles” album, released on both vinyl and CD.
Yuko Mabuchi enjoys teaching and inspiring young people, but her goal is to become a great musician and to work at her craft, tour the world, and leave her mark as a respected jazz pianist and composer. That dream is unfolding right before our eyes. I look forward to attending one of her concerts in the near future, once this pandemic has run its course. Until then, thank goodness for ‘YouTube.’