Saxophonist Hitomi Oba is known for being adventurous on the bandstand but sounds unassuming on record. For a non-jazz head, her new album Negai may seem a little boring at first. But it grows on you. A former star of the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, Hitomi has an unregimented approach to music — she studied ethnomusicology at UCLA instead of going to a conservatory, and she leads chamber groups playing classical piano. She has listened to all the standard-bearers and absorbed some of their influences — like the idea of making the rests count as much as the notes proper, or using a solo to build on the melody of a song. She doesn't try to be virtuosic, and thus requires a more patience than some of her counterparts.
Hitomi is a conceptual artist — not the type who manhandles or "moves" you right away. She has an extraordinary band (Josh Nelson on piano, Charles Altura on guitar, and Tom Altura on bass), and often lets the other personnel take center stage. What at first seems like a lack of proficiency is actually a mark of tact. The band's patient interpretations of such standards as "How Deep Is the Ocean" (which sounds sultry and pillowy), "Alone Together, and "Take the Coltrane" show how well they work in dialogue, while highlighting them as individuals. Bossa tune "Bytheway" is dull. "Have You Met Miss Jones?" is excellently rendered, and helps signify a style.
Negai really gets started on the fourth track, a phenomenal tune called "Across." Driven by abstract harmonies and subtle shifts in groove, it's easily the best song on the album. The other standouts are "Rika" and the title track, a ballad with a melody so catchy it could almost be a contemporary pop song. Both tunes show Hitomi's lack of inhibition as a soloist. More importantly, they show her promise as a composer and bandleader. At 24 years old, she still has plenty of room to grow, but what she has accomplished is pretty impressive. (M&I Music)