Yamanaka was born in Kiryu, in Japan's Gunma Prefecture, in 1976. At age four she began formal piano studies. While she began with classical music and still practices it, she shifted her focus to jazz studies in high school. After graduation she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston as part of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency program. She played with a wide range of musicians in Boston and in New York before heading back home to Japan after she graduated from Berklee in 2000 with honors -- and took first place in Down Beat's Outstanding Performance Award competition.
Temporarily returning to Japan, she began her recording career there in 2001 with Living Without Friday, the first of four annually released titles issued by the Japanese label Atelier Sawano. Nonetheless, Yamanaka's long-player gained notice immediately from critics and radio stations. Her 2002 follow-up, When October Goes, hit the top rungs of the Japanese jazz charts, and word began to spread among fans and critics across the Pacific back to America. Yamanaka had reached the level where she could tour not only in her home country but also Europe and select U.S. dates. During this time she was also a member of DIVA, the all-female big band led by drummer Sherrie Maricle. Yamanaka also performed with the DIVA spin-off quintet Five Play, who backed Marlene VerPlanck on her 2003 album It's How You Play the Game, all while continuing to tour and release her own recordings.
In 2005 she signed a worldwide deal with Universal's Classics and Jazz division and issued her North American debut with the trio effort Outside by the Swing, recorded in New York City with drummer Jeff Tain Watts and bassist Robert Hurst. Yamanaka immigrated to the States and issued the audio-video package Lach Doch Mal in 2006 with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard. While neither record made the jazz charts in the States, they reached the Top Five in Japan and upped the pianist's reputation to the degree that she became a global nomad, touring in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Arriving in 2007, Abyss was her first recording to feature drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Vicente Archer, who became her working trio. She broke the trio mold with 2009's Runnin' Wild, where her piano fronted a sextet. On 2010's Forever Begins, bassist Ben Williams replaced Archer in her trio. The following year saw the release of Reminiscence, which placed a live performance at the Iridium in New York with a studio album that featured Yamanaka in three different trio settings. In 2012 Yamanaka released the first of two tribute albums, Because, a loving nod to the Beatles on which she -- backed by a quartet -- played not only piano but synthesizer, organ, guitar, ukulele, and harmonica. Because was followed by the standards releases After Hours and After Hours 2. In 2013, she offered her tribute to classical music with Molto Cantabile.
In 2014, Yamanaka moved from Verve to the Universal-owned Blue Note label just in time for its 75th anniversary. Her debut, Somethin' Blue, was a sextet offering, and in addition to originals offered striking renditions of Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" and Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream." It reached into the Top Five on the jazz charts. She followed it the same year with Syncopation Hazard, her tribute to Scott Joplin. Yamanaka returned to the trio format for 2016's Blue Note-issued Guilty, which placed her original compositions alongside select pieces by Hoagy Carmichael. Near the end of 2017, Yamanaka produced and arranged Monk Studies. She played acoustic and electric piano, synth, and Hammond B-3 organ in an almost exclusively Monk program backed by drummer Deantoni Parks and bassist Mark Kelly. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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