Pianist provides a tribute to Canadian jazz legend for his debut

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

One decision that faces jazz musicians toward the start of their careers is whether to continue the traditions of what’s gone before them or to try and strike out in a new direction.

Pianist Yuki Futami, 26, has chosen the former path and has just released his debut album, “Banzai Oscar,” which is a tribute to the popular and influential Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007).

Peterson is considered by many to be one of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz, with a reputation for technical brilliance. Emerging in the late 1940s and brought to larger audiences by impresario Norman Granz, Peterson enjoyed a successful career that lasted more than six decades.

While many artists typically record a couple of albums before recording a tribute to one of the greats, Futami has a clear rationale for embarking on this project for his debut release.

“First of all, Oscar Peterson has influenced me a lot and I really admire his work,” Futami tells The Japan Times. “Also, I don’t think anyone has tried to do this kind of tribute album before, because it requires a high degree of technical ability. So I saw it as kind of a challenge.

“Beyond that I wanted an album that would clearly distinguish me as a straight-forward jazz musician, because this is the style of jazz I prefer.”

Futami started playing the piano from a very early age: “I got my first keyboard — a Casio — when I was 3 years old, and at first it was just a toy and something I played with for fun. But from the age of 5, I started taking piano lessons at Yamaha Music School and learned how to read music.”

Initially focusing on classical music, Futami says he discovered jazz in junior high school.

“I became interested in jazz when I was playing in the local brass band, and we often played jazz tunes. I actually played trombone in that band, though I was still studying the piano,” he says. “So from there my interest in jazz grew, and when I graduated from high school I decided that I wanted to become a professional jazz pianist.”

After studying with a couple of teachers and working on his technique for a couple of years, Futami says he felt he had reached a level where he could go out and perform and he has been playing on the jazz circuit with his trio and as a member of other combos for the last two or three years.

With the release of “Banzai Oscar” early last month, Futami now plans to play a series of gigs in the Kanto area to promote the album. Beyond that, he has ambitions to improve his playing even further.

“I really want to go to New York to study, practice and become a better player, and hopefully play on the international stage,” he explains. “And I think New York is the best place to go to try achieve that.”

“Banzai Oscar” features nine tracks, three of which are Futami originals (including “Cream Pie,” his own tribute to Peterson) with the rest being songs that were either composed or recorded by Peterson.

The trio acquit themselves well on the Peterson tunes, in particular the closing “Hymn To Freedom,” a blues tune written during the U.S. Civil Rights movement that Peterson often played to close his shows. In addition Futami shows potential as a composer in his own right, with the Latin-flavored “Southern Island” one of the album’s standout tracks.

Among the covers is the standard, “Body & Soul.” On May 8, Futami will be playing at the well-established jazz club in Tokyo’s Aoyama district named after this very song.

In a coincidence that’s almost too good to be true, while preparing promotional material for the album’s release, Futami’s team discovered that Peterson first recorded “Body & Soul” on the same date in 1950, when the legend was 25 years old — the same age Futami was when he recorded his album.

This serendipitous occurrence may just be the sign that things are falling nicely into place for this pianist.

Yuki Futami plays Body & Soul in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on May 8 (8 p.m./9:45 p.m. starts; ¥3,500; [03] 5466-3348); Jesse James in Tachikawa, Tokyo, on May 21 (7:30 p.m./ 9 p.m. starts; ¥2,300; [042] 535-7188); and Sometime in Musashino, Tokyo, on May 25 (2 p.m. start; ¥1,000; [0422] 21-6336). For more information, visit www.futamiyuki.wave-lab.net.