Previously, I had only heard the experimental side of Motoko Honda’s music. That was in Los Angeles, where I’d seen her perform live in the improvised setting of Polarity Taskmasters, a quartet co-led by Emily Hay on flute and vocals.
But Honda has a classical background and a rigorous interest in jazz, and those sides take the fore with her band, Simple Excesses. The music is genteel enough to fit the programming at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory, where Honda’s band was presented recently by the Northern California nonprofit Jazz in the Neighborhood, but it also had exploratory and subversive sides — creative fusion at work.
Late in the set, a piece called “Umba” really caught my attention. I remember Honda hammering away at fast triplets and continuing that pattern during Wright’s solo — manic stuff, until it ran into a shift in mood. This video excerpt, from a different concert in Los Angeles, must begin after that shift, but it gives you a feel for Honda’s skill at scattery jazz spontaneity applied with classical precision.
Getting back to the Berkeley show: Cory Wright provided a lead voice on a battery of woodwinds — saxes and clarinets, but also flute. One piece early in the first set combined piano and harmonized flute in a fast-running river of notes — a nice effect, sonically, and chiseled out with precision.
Like Wright, Jordan Glenn on drums was a familiar face that was good to see. (I haven’t been out to many shows in the past year or so.) He played a support role loyally, adding different shades of color and a spark of personality to each track. His spotlight moment came on “The Jumping Mouse,” the closer, where he and Honda dueled in a joint solo that had them bounding rhythms off one another with increasing intensity.
I hadn’t heard bassist Miles Wick before, but he was a strong presence throughout both sets. He got a long solo during the opening piece, full of rubbery melody; maybe it was the strength of that solo that prodded me to keep him in focus for most of the show.
Honda’s brand of jazz comes with a firm grip and confident strides in her chording and soloing, but we also got generous samples of her traditional classical side, the kind of piano evoking images of gentle snowfalls or wide, quiet fields. I’m thinking especially of one emotional piece about her late music teacher.
Jazz in the Neighborhood also supports emerging artists, granting them a stipend and a chance to perform with the concert artists. Under those auspices, violinist Eva Piontkowski sat in on a couple of songs, adding the airy melody that a violin can offer but also showing some edgy creativity in her soloing. She also got to play a challenging duet with Honda: a graphical score, around which they built a piece that was warm and lyrical but far from sappy. It later turned out this was Piontkowski’s first attempt at playing a graphical score, and she’d received no prior instruction — which is a legitimate and, if you think about it, once-in-a-lifetime way to perform this music.