Once described as "the most famous
person you've never heard of," idiosyncratic
pianist, singer and composer Akiko Yano has an impressive
discography that dates back to 1976, and she's worked
with leading musicians, from ex-husband Ryuichi Sakamoto to
jazz guitar icon Pat Metheny. She regularly tours Japan's
concert halls, has played a weeklong installment at the Blue
Note Tokyo, and has a regular gig at prestigious Manhattan
venue Joe's Pub.
Despite these impressive achievements, Yano remains mostly
unknown to a Western audience. Perhaps that's because
her music remains a marketing expert's nightmare, defying
classification, with some positioning her as Japan's
Kate Bush and others describing her songs as Sesame Street
music. These comparisons do go some distance, however, in
explaining Yano by getting at the element of childish play
that defines her work.
Born Akiko Suzuki in 1955, Yano studied jazz piano in high
school and recorded her first album, Japanese Girl, in 1976.
To the familiar wispy, girlish voice of Japanese idoru, Yano
added something different: a whimsical sense of mischief and
the ability to simultaneously sing and improvise on the piano.
Japanese Girl caused a sensation in the Japanese music scene,
with Yano standing out from the J-pop scene of the time as
something entirely original and different.
After a failed marriage to Makoto Yano, the producer of Japanese
Girl, she went on to become the wife and musical partner of
Ryuichi Sakamoto, soundtrack auteur and former member of legendary
'80s ele-pop unit Yellow Magic Orchestra. The partnership
saw Yano join YMO on tour worldwide in the early '80s
as support keyboardist, and she began to cultivate her own
following in the US.
Little Feat supported her on the West Coast, and she also
participated in recordings with UK rock band Japan, led by
David Sylvian (who still writes songs with Sakamoto), and
Thomas Dolby. Separating from Sakamoto, she moved to New York
in the '90s, where she now gigs regularly and records
with a range of musicians, mostly in the jazz field.
Meanwhile, Yano still finds time to maintain her career in
Japan, and has just released a best-of collection from her
work in the '90s. Piano Akiko (Epic) includes material
from Super Folk Song (1992), Piano Nightly (1995) and Home
Girl Journey (2000), as well as new material and a rare live
recording from her 1976 live debut, with colors ranging from
the delicate, lullaby song of "Prayer" to the
goofy humor of "Super Folk Song." She is supporting
the album with a national tour that winds up at NHK Hall in
Tokyo this weekend.
Akiko Yano plays NHK Hall December
13-14. See listings for details.