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Randy Runyon, Zak Croxall, and Thomas Hartman all joined Morita at Sculler’s last Tuesday. The gig also marked the release of Morita’s debut CD, Colors.
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Manami Morita

Sculler’s Jazz Club, Cambridge, MA

March 10, 2009

Manami Morita, a fresh graduate from the Berklee College of Music, celebrated the release of her CD Colors last week at Sculler’s. A young girl from Japan, Morita made her way to Berklee by impressing enough important people with her piano skills — and earning a full scholarship to get her degree in composition. Her short stature says nothing about her sound — when she sat down at the keys she pounded out song after song, flattening the audience with her speed and smooth directions towards her band members.

She opened with a bubbly tune, written as a tribute to her pet bird. Between songs, Morita was casual and fun, telling jokes to the audience. The next song in the set, an original called “Jungle Book,” was written for the Disney movie of the same name even though she admitted that she’d “never even seen it.” The audience’s laughter spilled into the first few measures of the fiery number, which showcased Morita’s lightning-speed finger work.

Though she’s clearly the leader of her trio, Morita decided to also perform a song written by her trusted friend and bass player, Zak Croxall. Also joining her on stage was drummer Bob Edinger. After a few tunes, the band stepped out to invite guitarist Randy Runyon on stage. Morita and Runyon performed a gorgeous duet, “Catch,” written by Runyon. The red-headed guitar player impressively floated across the neck of his instrument, and Morita improvised lightly in between rich, composed passages. Morita followed the piece with her own song, “Catch The Pandu,” whose title refers to an illegible label on a studio soundboard during a session she recorded with Runyon (the “R” and “Y” in Randy fell victim to unintentional smearing).

The original band returned to finish up the set, which included most of the songs found on Morita’s latest CD. Throughout the show, Morita kept humorously referring to her debut record, politely urging the audience to purchase it after the show. The show was a milestone for Morita, as it was her first show headlining at a major jazz venue. She had played one song at a competition at Sculler’s a while ago, and struck a deal with the club owner’s to organize her CD release show. After the show, Morita was candid enough to speak to me about her music and about her status in the jazz world. “I’m not doing anything new,” she recognizes, “but I love what I’m doing.” She agrees that her style is mainly rooted in the traditional jazz domain.

Being Japanese, a female, and playing technically sound, fast piano music, it’s hard not to compare her to the much older, also Berklee-bred Hiromi Uehara. When I asked if she liked being compared to Uehara, Morita grinned. Though she much prefers the music of Brad Mehldau, she says that she’s also influenced by Uehara’s music (though claims that it’s a bit more progressive and virtuosic). “I once had the chance to meet Hiromi,” she recounts; Uehara in fact came to Berklee after a local gig looking for Morita. The story goes that Uehara publicly expressed interest in hearing Morita play, but against the greater interest of a crowd that was standing by, Morita declined the offer to play. She later told me that had it been an more intimate setting, in a practice room, that she probably would have played for Uehara.

On the heels of her new release and her successful show at Sculler’s, Morita is a young jazz star with incredible momentum and potential. In addition to leading her trio, she’s also equally likely to play solo shows. Her interest in traditional jazz and swing pushes her to continue arranging for big band (though she doesn’t think she’ll ever lead a big band permanently). You can purchase Colors at http://cdbaby.com/cd/manamimorita, but unfortunately it doesn’t contain the stunning version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” that the group closed with last week. The audience applauded Morita into a solo encore that she played with a big smile on her face, her bandmates watching proudly from the side of the stage.