Taeko sings “What are you doing the rest of your life?” from her previous album, One Love
Take a talented young Japanese singer, transplant her to New York in her formative musical years, immerse her in what is probably the world’s richest jazz scene, then stand back and listen to all those influences collide, knocking sparks off each other. That’s the story of Taeko Fukao’s career so far, and the result is a fascinating blend of bebop and scat, underscored at times by a poignant serenity fired by her native folk heritage, and at others by the smooth, tasteful sheen that defines the best of modern, mainstream jazz vocalists.
Taeko’s new album, Voice, is a vibrant patchwork of styles that reveals, above all, the passion with which she has explored the range of the jazz idiom. In some ways, it’s a showcase for the benefits of intense study – and just occasionally, the impact is almost overwhelming as she tears up a furious-paced “On A Clear Day” with the dexterity of Ella in her prime, or launches into the bebop delights of the Monk/Hawkins/Hendricks number “I Mean You”, recalling Annie Ross or Cleo Laine at the peak of their vocal powers.
Then she shifts tone and mood with a sublime rendition of the 1940s Japanese ballad “Soochow Serenade” and later, with the self-penned “Spring Nocturne”. Think Sade, with attitude. For all the pace and energy in the surrounding numbers, these are the most effective moments on the album: passages of reflection and melancholy in which a softer, mellow timbre is allowed to flourish on a more burnished melodic line, taken to the limit on Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes”.
This is where Taeko sounds genuinely at home, in the telling of stories, and not least on a subtle, swinging, modernised “Biwako”, a folk song about the Japanese lake near her birthplace at Shiga. Doug Richardson’s melodica solo comes unexpectedly, adding yet another flavour to the music and reflecting Taeko’s confidence in choosing musicians who can complement her eclectic vision with considerable ease: Richardson also plays drums, with Greg Lewis on the organ, guitarist Kevin McNeal, pianist Lou Rainone, and bass player Gaku Takanashi. All have their moments to shine – a sure sign of a generous vocalist.
Such is her versatility that the overall effect is sometimes like being strafed by a benign scattergun loaded with different styles. All of which makes the album’s title more appropriate. She shares one of her most promising vocal qualities – the ability to be part of the band rather than just the singer out front – with the greats. Taeko veers from the soulful funk of the opening track, Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” (lyrics by one of her mentors Juanita Fleming) to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”, using her sound in an assertive, challenging way without straying into aggression.
Her phrasing and diction are impeccable, with interesting nuances generated by the occasional hint of an accent rarely heard in jazz. It’s 12 years since she answered the call of the Big Apple. They’ve been well spent and the city has served her well. But if this album is anything to go by, Taeko’s horizons are set for rapid expansion. There’s a big jazz world out there and it’s beckoning an unusual and singular talent.