Yuko Mabuchi Trio and Branford Marsalis Quartet

Yuko Mabuchi Trio and Branford Marsalis Quartet great jazz ushered in the New Year in Orange County.


Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa produces one of the most important jazz series in the country. I drove up from my home near San Diego to attend the Yuko Mabuchi Trio/Branford Marsalis Quartet performances on January 25th in the 1800 seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Segerstrom Center uses two concert halls for its jazz series. The more intimate 300-seat Samueli Theatre hosts most of the musicians on the jazz series, which recently included Cecile McLorin Salvant, Kurt Elling and The Kenny Barron Quintet.

But for Ahmad Jamal last year and the recent Yuko Mabuchi Trio/Branford Marsalis Quartet performances, Segerstrom needed the large and glorious sounding venue. From my vantage point, the house looked full Friday night and performances awaited them were inspired.

Branford Marsalis is a jazz great and comes from the Marsalis dynasty of jazz royalty. I am grateful to him for asking the Yuko Mabuchi Trio to open for him; this was Yuko’s introduction to the Segerstrom audience.

Yuko Mabuchi combines sexy athleticism at the piano with serious musical poetry. The young fans in the house responded to both with great enthusiasm. So did audience members in their 70s and 80s. This was a fast up-tempo set resulting in thunderous applause with audience members yelling and stamping their feet for the standing ovation at the end. I was impressed to see so many young people and people of different ethnic backgrounds in once conservative Costa Mesa. But like me, I recognized some audience members who had driven down from San Francisco or flown in from Hong Kong and different parts of the country for the event. Mabuchi and Marsalis are clearly powerful draws.

As the opening act, Yuko Mabuchi Trio performed for about 45 minutes. This writer and the rest of the Segerstrom audience are obviously hungry for more. I attended the concert because I know the Yuko Mabuchi Trio through her audiophile albums which Yarlung has released world-wide on CD, vinyl and DSD to critical acclaim, including from this writer. Returning from the concert, I used Yuko’s first LP to audition a new turntable with the manufacturer I will be selling at my company, Hi-Fi One. My expectations for the concert were high and Yuko exceeded them.

Yuko opened with an improvised medley for solo piano showing keyboard brilliance and musical variety. She started with Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, followed by Prelude to A Kiss and ended with a hard swinging version of I’ve Got Rhythm that toyed at one point with traditional Ragtime/Stride style.

Next followed an inventive reharmonization of the Miles Davis classic So What, delivered with a solid Latin feel, in which she shared the melody generously with Del Atkins on bass. Yuko’s artistic courage was on full display, as this jazz standard could easily sound disingenuous to plain wrong; and yet it sounded like a tribute. One delivered with sensitivity and honesty.

Before segueing into Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, Yuko asked Del to improvise on James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, the de facto “Negro National Anthem” in honour of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday holiday we had just celebrated. I had to ask myself “Stevie Wonder? Really? Instead of one of Yuko’s originals?” but she pulled it off thanks to her improvising. Stevie Wonder fans in the audience responded positively. Again, taking artistic risks and making them pay.

Yuko closed the set with a thunderbolt performance of the Brazilian composition Batucada, by Marcos Valle. The first section opened solo piano, to a drum rim shot and claps from the audience. Soon the Trio joined in and the standing ovation was no surprise.

Yuko Mabuchi Trio was made up of Yuko on piano, Del Atkins on bass, and Bobby Breton on drums. I’ve only heard Del play acoustic bass before, which he does well (note Sarah Bareilles’ Seriously on the album Yuko Mabuchi Trio). I objected at first to seeing him on electric bass for this concert and scratched my head at the choice. While I hope he plays acoustic for most of their performances –Yuko’s stature as one of today’s most important young jazz pianists deserves no less — I must admit Del’s competence with the electric bass. The audience loved it. Bobby’s percussion performance varied between subtle and energetic as the tunes called for and his alternating groove and swing completed the trio beautifully.

Yuko may be the new tiger of the piano keyboard while she is improvising (sounding more like a seasoned African American jazz virtuoso from Detroit or Chicago than the sprite Asian lady she is), but when she stands to introduce tunes and her trio mates she reveals that she is a sweet young Japanese woman, a little shy almost, endearingly so, with a warm captivating personality. Yuko wore a slinky red outfit that would have helped this beautiful young girl feel comfortable showing off couture on a fashion runway. Yuko thanked Mr. Marsalis for inviting her to join his concert, referring to him as one of the most important and inspiring jazz musicians of this generation, and she set up the audience to be wowed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet after the break. She also thanked Segerstrom Center and her executive producers Randy Bellous, Craig and Diane Martin, Claude Cellier from Merging Technologies and Toyota Motor North America for their support with her recordings. (Stay tuned: Yuko’s next release is scheduled to be Yuko Mabuchi plays Miles Davis.) Yuko also thanked Steinway & Sons for the piano she chose, a glorious Hamburg Steinway.

Yuko signed CDs and LPs at intermission with the longest lines I’ve seen in years for these “long dead” formats. She returned for another hour to greet audience members and sign more CDs after the second half.

Some in the audience may have wondered how Branford Marsalis Quartet would sound after the fiery dynamism from Yuko Mabuchi Trio in the opening act. Nobody needed to worry. Branford on saxophone, Joey Calderazzo on piano, bassist Eric Revis on bass and Jeff Tain Watts on drums acquitted themselves brilliantly. World class in my opinion.

If you don’t know Branford’s legendary recordings, you might enjoy starting with A Love Supreme, recorded live in Amsterdam and released by Sony in 2015 and Upward Spiral, the collaboration with singer Kurt Elling released a year later. I’m looking forward to The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, coming out in March.

The quartet opened with pianist Joey Calderazzo’s Conversation Among the Ruins, which was part avantgarde jazz, part hard bop, part free jazz, but Calderazzo sneaked a sophisticated structure into the work. Despite this arrangement’s chaotic and tumultuous builds, Branford kept elegant control of his instrument. His clear resonance and captivating tonality were consistent throughout.

Mr. Marsalis has said in interviews that his approach to writing and soloing is “melodic and rhythmic, with harmony third,” and it was interesting to hear these concepts explored in Andrew Hill’s Snake Hip Waltz, giving a nod to New Orleans roots, and explored in Branford’s own ballad Life Filtering from the Water Flowers.

Next followed my favourite standard from the quartet, one of the most soothing and graceful interpretations of this song I have heard: Jim McHugh’s On the Sunny Side of the Street. The quartet played whimsically and meaningfully, with absolutely beautiful sound coming out of Branford’s saxophone, to an audience craving normalcy in strange times.

I will never forget Eric Revis’ Nilaste, in which he assigned himself a lengthy and spectacular bass solo. Not only was the piece riveting, but Revis’ technical mastery and physicality will stay with me always. Even in the highest registers of the bass, Revis’ pitches were perfect, even to these jaded ears. Masterful.

The Quartet finished their set with Keith Jarrett’s The Windup, and not to ignore another Brazilian master after Yuko’s electric Batucada, the quartet ended with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Inútil Paisagem. But that wasn’t quite the end of this glorious concert. For an encore, Branford took an interesting risk, and his quartet performed Irving Mills’ St. James Infirmary as a slow blues, almost a New Orleans dirge.

One of the most enthusiastic members of Branford Marsalis Quartet’s performance in the second half was Yuko Mabuchi herself. I could see her in the auditorium practically dancing in her seat to the Quartet’s performance.

In an era when presenters bemoan the dwindling of serious jazz audiences, Segerstrom Center clearly demonstrates success. I look forward to returning often to this venue and to hearing more of Yuko Mabuchi Trio and Branford Marsalis Quartet on tour in coming decades. We are in a new golden era, my friends, and we must celebrate it. Yes, enjoy Branford’s and Yuko’s great performances on their recordings. But hear them live and travel as far as you need to. They are worth it.