Interview with Yoko Miwa: A musician with soul speaks to me more than a musician, who … Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist Yoko Miwa. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Yoko Miwa: – I grew up in Japan and started taking piano lessons at the age of four, I was very much encouraged by my mother who loves music. Before I even started taking lessons I was already playing piano on my own, I was born with perfect pitch so I was playing things like themes that I heard on TV shows or just any music that I was exposed to.

JBN: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

YM: – There was already a piano in my house and I just naturally gravitated towards it. I’ve had many teachers over the years, I can give them all credit for shaping me into the pianist I’ve become. There was my classical piano teacher as a child in Japan who had a ruler with needles attached to it to make certain her students used the correct hand position, could never happen in today’s world but I guess it worked for her students. I had lots of good classical piano teachers growing up in Japan but the teacher who had the most impact on my life musically was Minoru Ozone, the father of famed Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone. Minoru was old school and taught me by ear, made me memorize solos instead of teaching jazz theory. I learned so much from him and ended up sitting in on his gigs and even eventually teaching in his music school, he was a mentor and it was like a apprentice relationship with an established artist. This kind of situation is almost nonexistent these days so I feel very lucky to have had that experience.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

YM: – My sound evolved from listening to masters of jazz piano, studying their touch, feel, harmonic approach and all the things that went into giving them their own personal sound. My tastes and jazz piano are pretty eclectic so my sound represents that, it is a hybrid of many different jazz pianist that gets blended with my experience as a jazz musician and working pianist in today’s world.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

YM: – I’ve come up with my own way of using scales which has and continues to help me improve immensely. Even though I am now an associate professor in the piano department at the Berklee College of Music, I still consider myself a lifelong student. I still transcribe piano solos and solos of other jazz instrumentalists, over the years I’ve had an increasing interest in rhythm like what polyrhythms are being used or where a phrase is displaced or resolves or not. I’ve also fallen in love with the rhythmic feel of Brazilian and Afro Cuban music and although it certainly differs from jazz there is the relation of all the rhythms stemming from Africa so it has ultimately helped my rhythm in playing jazz.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

YM: – I love beautiful harmonic voicings but I also love dissonance. For me, putting together an engaging set of music for an audience or for a studio recording requires both harmonic beauty and dissonance as well as a mixture of a good feeling rhythmic groove and rhythmic tensions. This is vital for jazz and not only keeps the audience engaged as well as the other players in my trio as well as myself. Ultimately, I try to serve the song that I’m playing and certain songs lend themselves more to dissonance or rhythmic tension than others.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

YM: – Jazz has a huge umbrella with many styles fitting under it and one of the things I love about jazz is that there is so much freedom to have your own sound and voice. If I hear something I like or that speaks to me it might have some affect and even stick with me but if it’s something that doesn’t speak to me musically it just moves on down the road. There is something for everyone under the umbrella of jazz.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

YM: – A musician with soul speaks to me more than a musician who simply plays with impressive technique but the balance can be different depending on what the music calls for…I once heard Larry Goldings say: There is no right or wrong when it comes to jazz but believe it or not some things sound better than others.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

YM: – I see it as a balance. You have to know who your audience is but if you only play for the audience then it becomes more like a show which doesn’t always work with jazz since we are improvising. I find that if I can play something that moves me musically or inspires me then it can have a “butterfly effect” on the audience as well.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

YM: – I have too many, it would take all day but I’ll recount just one story for you from my early days in Boston where I played as the pianist in a local big band which sometimes would have performances with a famous guest musician. One time we played with the great trumpeter Jon Faddis, the members of the band were all at varying levels and we never rehearsed or performed that much due to financial constraints with a big band. Jon Faddis came in to perform with us and despite the fact that this big band was not at the level of musicianship he was accustomed to he didn’t let that affect him in any way. He played with such virtuosity and ultimately made the band better than it was even when he wasn’t playing. He did it all with his vibe and aura and it’s something I’ll never forget.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

YM: – If you look at the repertoire on the CDs I’ve released or if you’ve seen me perform live then you would know I don’t subscribe to only playing old jazz standards. I play any kind of music that speaks to me regardless of the style, I transform it into a jazz piano trio setting or just use it as a vehicle for improvisation. The standards are a necessity and while it’s an integral part of jazz only playing songs from the American Songbook of jazz standards is a part of jazz history that the music has moved on from.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

YM: – I can honestly say that when I’m improvising and playing jazz with other high level musicians there is a higher form of communication that takes place…one that makes me feel like I’m connected to something greater than just this life or just this world.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

YM: – The way that music is tied together with money and commercialism, this was never the intended function of music … it has a higher purpose … but we need to survive and make a living in order to do what we love so we have to compromise to move forward sometimes … I wish for a musical world without compromise.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

YM: – In some ways for me music is like food and I can’t eat the same thing everyday. Depending on how I’m feeling I might listen to jazz, or rock, or brazilian, or folk…etc. I also listen to the old as well as the new. A new release that speaks to me is Brad Mehldau’s “Finding Gabriel”.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

YM: – I found that despite whatever message I choose to bring, my music means different things to different people. I recently performed one of my new compositions at a show which was still untitled and I asked the audience for title suggestions, it was interesting how much the various audience member’s image of the song differed from what I was feeling while at the same time was still fitting with the music.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

YM: – I recently saw the Blue Note documentary “It Must Schwing” and loved it so much. I think I would choose to go back to NYC during the Blue Note era, just listening to those old Blue Note recordings has had so much impact on me but jazz is best experienced live and I can only imagine what a treat it would have been to experience that same music live in a NYC jazz club back in the day.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

YM: – How did you discover me?

JBN: – Thanks for answers. From internet …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

YM: – As musicians we do what we have to do and we do it because we love it. For me there’s no other choice, I can’t imagine a different life. I’m longing for more success, to tour nationally and internationally, reaching more audiences with my music…at the same time I feel like even though it’s such a struggle being a jazz musician it’s also so rewarding. I have so much left to accomplish yet in many ways I’ve already reached my goal.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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