Yamashita studied piano as a child and has played professionally since the age of 17. He attended Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo from 1962-1967 and played for a time with saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. Yamashita formed a bassless trio in 1969; his Bill Evans-influenced style expanded to include free jazz, a rather radical step given the conservatism of the Japanese jazz scene at the time. Beginning in the '70s, his trio toured widely and played many major European events, including the Berlin and Montreux jazz festivals. Yamashita's U.S. debut was at the 1979 Newport Jazz Festival; he also recorded with members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago around that time. In the '80s, Yamashita began playing frequent solo concerts. He also branched out stylistically, playing with Japanese and Korean percussionists and incorporating adaptations of classical works into his repertoire. Yamashita has worked with many internationally famous artists, including Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Bill Laswell, Mal Waldron, and Lester Bowie. In 1985, he made the first of what would come to be annual appearances at Sweet Basil night club in New York. He formed an "American" trio with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan akLaff; the group became his primary performing unit when in the States. In the '90s, Yamashita recorded several albums for Verve; in 1994, he played solo at the label's 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. Yamashita has recorded more than 40 albums. He's also an accomplished essayist, having written several books.