Local trio takes its quirky jazz stylings from the clubs to the classroom
What’s in a name, you might ask? That was my first question to Shigemi Minetaka and Christine LaPado, the distaff members of jazz trio NewmanAmiYumi, as we sat in LaPado’s south Chico home on a recent evening.
The answer went like this: Minetaka (piano) and LaPado (upright bass) were playing gigs at Gen Kai back in January 2005 before the two musicians brought in Mike Newman as their sax player. Christine’s late husband, the whimsical (and musical) John LaPado, suggested PuffyAmiYumi, a Japanese girl duo’s band name—but to change it by using Newman’s moniker; hence NewmanAmiYumi.
LaPado, also a frequent contributor to the CN&R, actually met Minetaka in 2003 while interviewing her and jazz vocalist Holly Taylor for a story about female musicians. The three women agreed that an all-female jazz group would be a fun thing, and formed a short-lived trio called Jazzgrrls.
LaPado and Newman have played with almost every jazz musician in town, including well-known players like Rocky Winslow, Dave Elke and Charlie Robinson, and even share some of the same influences: sax player Wayne Shorter and classics like Monk and Mingus.
Minetaka, a native of Japan, is a classically trained pianist who discovered jazz eight years ago while living in Vancouver.
“I had a lot of time after I got married,” she explained. “And although I’d given up the piano, I had a flute with me. So, I thought maybe I’d try jazz on the flute.”
NewmanAmiYumi have become a local success (named Best Jazz Group at the 2007 CAMMIES), playing numerous gigs in and around Chico. The trio recently added hard-hitting drummer Tino Marrufo to perform with them, bringing in a whole new dynamic. The group has only a handful of shows on the calendar before Minetaka heads to Canada and Japan for 10 months with her husband, who’s on sabbatical from the university.
One of the final performances will be to support Classroom Jazz, a double-CD project dreamed up by producer Peter Berkow, which was recorded last year at Electric Canyon Studios with Dale Price. The album features the trio (plus veteran jazz drummer Lew Langworthy) playing a collection of songs designed for 2- to 6-year-olds.
LaPado was enthusiastic about the project.
“We had so much fun taking those sweet and familiar songs and putting our own spin on them,” she said. “Some of the sounds coming from Newman’s horn and Lew’s drums were so preciously wacky and just right. And, of course, Shigemi’s playing was divinely sweet as always.”
Minetaka was a stranger to most of the songs that appear on the CD, although she knew some of them in their Japanese versions. LaPado was also surprised when Newman professed not to know a few of them.
Just like musicians working off a “Fake Book” of jazz standards, the quartet examines each song’s theme before embarking on a series of improvisations and then returning to the theme. And even though the music is aimed at young children, the caliber of musicianship ensures that even their parents will find much to enjoy here.
Disc one (Playtime) includes such well-known songs as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” the intriguingly themed “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” “On Top of Spaghetti” (perhaps more familiar to listeners of a certain age as “On Top of Old Smokey") played as a waltz (!), and a very peppy “The Ants Go Marching” (aka “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again") that ought to get the target audience revved up (as if they needed it).
Naptime, as its title implies, is the more peaceful disc with “Brahms’ Lullaby,” a different version of “Hush, Little Baby,” which appears on disc one (both of them are very sweet), and the classic naptime number, a lusciously relaxed, beautifully rendered “Rock-a-bye Baby.”
Berkow said the key to the success of the project was that it didn’t come off as dashed off and corny, and praised the players for taking it seriously.
“Mike Newman was fantastic,” Berkow said. “How hard is it for a seasoned sax player who is used to playing for barflies at Mr. Lucky or Duffy’s to re-think his audience? [LaPado and Minetaka] are both excellent players, and the sheer sense of fun is obvious.”