Idol Hands

Phillip Greenlief on the music of Motoko Honda

Motoko Honda, Nosy Room: Curiosity Garden, 2018. Kala Art Institute, Berkeley, California. Photo: Hillary Goidell.

THE MUSIC OF PIANIST AND COMPOSER MOTOKO HONDA is to mainstream jazz what Brahms’s music was to the neatly packaged forms of the Classical period. Following Beethoven’s belief that forms must expand to represent the breadth of human experience, the 19th century composer presented elongated themes with lengthy development, in which melodies were passed throughout the orchestra; he avoided the leitmotifs of Wagner, for whom specific instruments were associated with specific themes.

Honda has assimilated many forms on her path to the present: early classical piano training in Japan, a move to the United States to study chamber music and drums at Bethany College in Kansas, then continuing on to the California Institute of the Arts, where she immersed herself in world music, as well as jazz, experimental and contemporary music. You can hear an amalgam of reshaped styles and operating procedures in her work. In response to the tumultuous stylistic fluctuation of the late 60’s, critics and audiences posed the tedious conversation stopper: is jazz dead? If the music is understood as a set of ossified stylistic markers rather than a mode of exploration, then what else is there to talk about? Honda refuses stagnation and continues the tradition of widening our ears with new ideas.

She opened the concert with a composition titled For Simple Matters (2013), painting serene melodies on a Yamaha concert grand, then developed the music by changing the color of the accompanying harmonies. As her intro faded, bassist Miles Wick played a variation of the theme on contrabass, and Jordan Glenn made brush strokes on his snare drum. This illustrated a unique use of orchestration: in jazz, bassists are rarely allowed to state principal motifs, the instrument being mostly relegated to the establishment of tonality. Honda harmonized and commented with melodic echoes; the trio continued to expand the material via improvisation until woodwind wizard Cory Wright joined them on Bb clarinet. Once the entire ensemble was engaged, they worked their way through numerous passages. Rather than relying on an individual player to cue a new section, which is common practice, each introduced composed cells into the piece to build a long-form structure. Audible seams are rare in Honda’s work. Hers is a music of thematic expansion, where each player is an equally important contributor, and the role of leader is ever shifting.

Up next: Where, Where and Here It Was (2012), which was driven by an opening riff voiced on piano and flute—a descending line that repeated over a 5/4 groove. After briefly doubling the line with Honda, Wright played long-tone phrases on flute against her piano riff. Rather than inserting the phrase in the same position against the meter, he continually switched the starting point, giving the impression of a moving target. That sequence soon collapsed to feature Wick’s stunning arco bass, and when the other three players returned, the performance took on a rowdy, carnivalesque atmosphere. Honda evoked Cecil Taylor - her thundering bass phrases and aggressive right hand chord voicings eventually caused everything to fall apart, allowing Wright some unaccompanied space to urge overtones from his flute. Soon the piano re-entered, playing repetitive chord clusters to support a hypnotic drum solo from Glenn.

Motoko Honda's Simple Excesses Quartet performing at the Taube Atrium Theater, San Francisco, California. Photo: Scott Chemis.

Just before intermission, the audience was treated to a duo of Honda and emerging artist, Eva Piontkowksi. The performance was presented by Jazz In The Neighborhood (JITN), a small non-profit dedicated to establishing a living wage for musicians in the Bay Area; JITN also encourages performing ensembles to work with younger artists, giving them a chance to play for larger audiences and work with master musicians. (Thanks to the efforts of JITN’s founder Mario Guarneri, there is hope that artists will be able to keep working in a city that has long been touted as a creative center for music, but where rentals cost thirty times what they did when I moved here in 1979). Honda programmed The Perfect Shadow for An Imperfect Realm, a graphic score she composed during a 2017 residency in Barcelona. Piontkowsky led with a simple melodic cell on violin while the pianist lightly stabbed at chords and clusters. The violinist transitioned to ascending arpeggios while Honda telegraphed motifs and variations that echoed independently, borrowing from the concept of canon (echoing melodies), but signaled over greater distances of time.

The second set started with Walking By (2017) an irresistible vamp that featured improvised dialogues from Piontkowski and Wright on alto. The quartet continued with Umba (2013), a staggering study of angular melodies in contrary motion and a great vehicle to allow for Wright to float sleek lyricism over treacherous chord changes. Honda evoked the spirit of Issac Hayes on Jumping Moops (2013), which boasted a straight-8ths feel groove with locrian-tinged minimalist loops. The tune served as a solo vehicle for Glenn, who can establish time without clearly defined beats and obliterate pulse without tampering with the feeling of forward motion.

Honda’s ability to blur the boundary between composer and musician is an element of jazz that has been with the music since its inception. What is strikingly uncommon is the complexity of the roadmap that unfolds when the players engage with her music. Honda’s process has a transformative effect on listeners privy to a complex system of inter-communication and cooperative building strategies.

Motoko Honda’s Simple Excesses Quartet performed on Wednesday, January 9th at Rendon Hall at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, California.