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Interviews

Yoko Miwa: New Star in an Old Sky

By Published: November 29, 2011
That said, she is very much part of a generation including Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
, Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
, and John Medeski
John Medeski
John Medeski

keyboard
. She also loves Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
b.1970
piano
, but feels too many try to copy him. "Still I like swing, Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
," and her grand elegance is even reminiscent of Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
Teddy Wilson
1912 - 1986
piano
. "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 song—I 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
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
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 good—we 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."

Greg Loughman
Greg Loughman
Greg Loughman
b.1973
bass
on bass, and Scott Goulding on drums. On a first listen, these two seem barely audible, sensed only like the ripples representing the current on the surface of Miwa's playing. Listened to more closely, things are more complex. Goulding even goes quite mad on drums at times. This demonstrates the depth and suppleness of their communication. The trio is perfect together. "I met Scott at Berklee. He had already graduated. He was playing in one class I was attending, [pianist] JoAnne Brackeen
JoAnne Brackeen
JoAnne Brackeen
b.1938
piano
's class. And there was a rhythm section and each week we had to choose a song from a CD to transcribe and play with the rhythm section. The day when I performed my first song, the bassist didn't show up, so it was just me and Scott.

"Greg I met at a jam session I used to go to in Newton, Mass., an old guy who played saxophone. He had a session everyday during the day at his house. So I used to go every week, and one day he was there. I thought he was a great bassist. It's really hard to find one, a good one who will understand my playing. It doesn't mean a great bassist, a great drummer, will work with me. We have to work together and they have to understand my music and my playing and my background."

Miwa also has a fine sense of how to weave her own playing through that of Loughman and Goulding, suggesting a possible skill with larger scale bands. "At Berklee I wanted to do a big band arrangement, or something with strings. But I stopped doing anything else and wanted to just concentrate on piano trio. That's my favorite jazz setting. I still enjoy listening to the trio setting the best. Whoever I'm listening to I love the trio." Very cautious and methodical, she takes her future one step at a time.

"I am always thinking about the audience. I'm not really like, 'Me, me, me, me, me.' I don't like when I go to a concert and they're having a great time but there's no connection with audience. I'm always thinking, 'How do they feel about this song?' I am always thinking about the songs list. We cannot decide what we will play until that moment, so we pick one by one. And we see the audience is talking, or they're partying, or they're listening. Maybe they want to be happy, or maybe more quiet. So you have to see what's going on. Some people cannot do that. That's very important for a professional musician."


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