Yoko Miwa: New Star in an Old Sky
Japan still holds a complex place in her heart. "I go back once a year, when I can. I missed this year. It's getting harder and harder, especially with my new seat at Berklee. I miss my family, I miss my country, I miss everything. I wish we lived closer. I would like to be there, but it just doesn't work and I want to be here, and they know that works for me. They used to say, 'Oh when are you coming back? You told me just one year.' That was my plan. They used to give me a really hard time to be in Japan, but now they see that I am enjoying what I do, they understand more and more, and they are really supportive. They gave up, basically. I want to go home as much as possible. I have connections in Japan and they book my concerts. My dream is for more back and forth, and I can see my family more often."
In Miwa's work, the tradition is fore-grounded and her own style is set in a detailed way, though heavily, in the background, almost a reversal of the two. This is akin to Japanese art, where nature exists on a much grander scale than man. The jazz tradition, which goes back in time four centuries through slaveryshe puts herself in a humble place within that, but a very strong one nonetheless. "I always respect where it comes from, so I always like to learn from the jazz tradition." Even when she dips into traditional Japanese songs with "Red Dragonfly" on her debut CD, In the Mist of Time (Tocuma, 2001), "I played it with a bluesy gospel feel rather than a traditional Japanese one."
That said, she is very much part of a generation including Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and John Medeski. She also loves Brad Mehldau, but feels too many try to copy him. "Still I like swing, Oscar Peterson," and her grand elegance is even reminiscent of Teddy Wilson. "I cannot decide exactly my style. I want to mix it, and I kind of worry, 'Is this weird?' But still, it's my song, there's nothing weird about it."
She has a broad palette, dipping into everything from the meanderings of Chopin to Aerosmith's "Seasons of Wither." "I'm always looking for something new. I like the standards, and I like to play my originals, but I am always searching. The Aerosmith songI always liked that song but I never thought I'd play it, until I was surfing YouTube. 'It's kind of pretty,' I thought. 'Maybe I'll do it as a solo piano.' But we had a show and we were doing a rehearsal and I thought, 'Maybe I'll do this song as a trio.' I just wanted to see how it sounded, and it came out really good. I want Steve Tyler to listen to it. It seems like everybody loves it."
Bill Evans is always her hero. "It never changes. He also came from the trio tradition. I felt a similar process in my work." But where both are still and peaceful on the surface, Evans stays still all the way through, while Miwa has a core that is disturbed and passionate. "I like his kind of sadness. I feel very connected to him through that bittersweet sadness."
When she improvises, she does so with passionate exploration. It's always a surprise and guessing game where she will go. "As long as I'm in the role, when we are playing really goodwe always talk about this as musicians. We believe we are somewhere else. Nothing can go wrong when you are in a zone. Something happens. Someone was telling me, 'That's not us. It can't be!' Because we cannot control... I'm so fortunate to have that moment that I don't question the mystery, just accept it as a gift."
Its technical precision notwithstanding, Miwa's work inspires mind play and metaphors. Described as having "the lyric sensibility of a jazz poet," she enters her waters like a naked pearl diver. Handling the blues she is like a little Latina girl rolling a macho, Cuban cigar. For all this, she is also much like a keeper of a Japanese garden, mixing in foreign and hybrid plants. "I need to have the mood to compose," she says. It's not like I can say, 'I have to compose now.' I try, sometimes and force myself, but it doesn't work. Sometimes like working around the house, outside, looking at the beautiful sky or try to relax, just get in the mood for it, then I get something."