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Eri Chichibu: Discovering the Path from Psychology to Jazz and Crossing Reality

Eri Chichibu: Discovering the Path from Psychology to Jazz and Crossing Reality

Courtesy Kana Tarumi

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I want listeners to expand their imagination inspired by my music and just have fun.
—Eri Chichibu
Sometimes people decide to pursue a career in music early in their lives, but many artists go with a "normal" career until their passion for music wins. That happened to Eri Chichibu, a Japanese composer, arranger and pianist who started as a psychology major in Japan. She holds a bachelor's degree in Jazz Composition and Film Scoring and a minor in Video Game Scoring from Berklee College of Music. She won the 2020 and 2019 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award, the 2020 ISJAC/USF Owen Prize and has gained many other accolades in music.

From her home in Japan, Chichibu spoke to All About Jazz about her path to jazz, music collaborations and the debut album of her original compositions, Crossing Reality (ReBorn Wood, 2022).

All About Jazz: For how long have you been playing the piano?

Eri Chichibu: I started playing piano when I was around twenty-one years old. Before that, I played the electric organ at the Yamaha music school in Japan. When I was at the university as a psychology major, there was a jazz club. They had a white grand piano in the room. I had never seen a white-colored piano. I was fascinated by the piano. I decided to join the club so that I can play that piano.

AAJ: How and when did you start writing music?

EC: When I was a child, I went to Yamaha music school. They had a program where we composed music. Back then, I actually did not like composing music. I could not understand why I had to make music for no reason. I thought I needed some inspiration. When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I found it interesting and fun to do arrangements. After that, I do not know why, but I became interested in composing music. It was before the Berklee program. I was making music but I had to know more about music.

AAJ: Did you start learning jazz while you were in the jazz club at the university, or was there something before? And when did you decide to make music your profession?

EC: In the jazz club, yes. At the university, I was studying psychology and planning to do a master's degree. I had a spring break before the master's degree. During that spring break, I went to a music workshop in Sapporo, Japan. The teachers were from Berklee. Many people joined and had fun. It was a one-week workshop. On the last day, we had a performance where I was chosen for the Berklee Award. That has changed my life completely. The award is a scholarship for a five-week Berklee summer performance program. I felt so surprised because I have never been recognized as a musician like that before. I had got some awards before, but not internationally. I thought, maybe I should do music instead of psychology. I decided to go to Berklee and there I became a composer.

AAJ: Did you have any hobbies, other than psychology and music, that could turn you in some other direction?

EC: Not really. I enjoy a lot of things, but I was going to do a master's of psychology, so that was the only choice before going into music. I did music but I never thought I could be a professional musician.

AAJ: Who are some of your mentors that helped you to become a professional musician?

EC: My teacher at the Berklee Jazz Workshop was the trumpeter Tiger Okoshi. He is a professor at Berklee, and he is doing an annual workshop in Japan. He was one of the judges to choose the Berklee Award. After I got the award, he supported me a lot. Another mentor is Ron Miles, a trumpet player. I met him at ISJAC [International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers] Symposium in 2019, where I had a presentation of my piece. He was one of the guest artists in my session. After that, he became my mentor remotely. He encouraged me to do music. During the pandemic, he sent an email to me: "How do you feel? We are waiting for your music to come out," "Here is a podcast that you may like," or something like that. He gave me a lot of encouragement and information that I needed. In 2021, I could get a grant from Pathways to Jazz and make an album. Then, there is one more mentor in Japan, a private teacher. Her name is Yuki Matsuzaki. She was my electric organ teacher.

Moving to Boston

AAJ: How did the move from Japan to Boston affect your life?

EC: It was a big change for me. Just that one Berklee workshop has changed my life. I went to the summer program. I took an audition and I got a scholarship. Otherwise, I would not be able to go. I think I was lucky.

AAJ: How much is being a musician in Japan different from the United States?

EC: When I went to Berklee, I found a lot of new music or sound genres and fields, like sound design and engineering. I could learn from all the people there. In Japan, if you go to a music college, you usually only have performance or classical composition. Some schools have jazz courses, but not many. At Berklee, there are a lot of majors, not only composition or performance. Even composition itself has a lot of majors: composition, jazz composition, film scoring, contemporary music, songwriting and electronic music. I learned how free music is in America.

AAJ: Is your move to Japan permanent or are you planning to come back to the United States?

EC: I was going to stay in the US. I came back to Japan because of the pandemic. I do not know when I can go back. I was going to do professional training in 2020. Because of the pandemic, I could not experience many opportunities in the US. I could not do a lot of real writing gigs. I would like to go back at some point or maybe work in both the US and Japan.

Music Collaborations

AAJ: Tell a bit about people you have collaborated with.

EC: The WDR Big Band has played my piece as an extra prize of the ISJAC Owen Prize. It was a great experience. I learned a lot from their performance.

AAJ: Who are the other musicians on your album Crossing Reality?

EC: I recorded with Shun Ishiwaka, Marty Holoubek, Taka Nawashiro, Kunihiro Kikuta, David Negrete, Akihiro Nishiguchi, Itsumi Komano, Haruka Sasaki, Madoka Koike and Tamako Hayashi. There are two guest players: a saxophonist and composer Remy Le Boeuf and a flugelhorn player Milena Casado.

AAJ: How was the collaboration with the musicians who played for your album? Did you give them your scores and they just played what is written or did they offer you some ideas?

EC: We recorded the rhythm section together and then the horn section another day. I told them my vision of the tunes and also we exchanged a lot of ideas as needed. Thanks to this process, I think my music became so alive and colorful. It was a fun experience. With our New York guests, Remy Le Boeuf and Milena Casado, we exchanged emails and texts because we could not see each other in person for this recording. They recorded at the studio or at home and sent the audio to me. It was challenging but also fun to do studio recordings, remote recordings, mixing and mastering. Now I feel happy about the whole recording.

AAJ: At what studio did you record the album?

EC: ReBorn Wood studio in Japan, in Tokyo. Remy Le Boeuf did the recording at the Bass Hit Studios in New York.

AAJ: How is your writing different depending on the projects you are working on?

EC: Sometimes I write for a player when I know what their sound is. I can imagine the sound easily. I like to write for the player. Sometimes I cannot decide who is going to play. In that case, I put more energy into the composition itself. I think about the story or emotion and then write music.

AAJ: What about film scoring and video games?

EC: They are more about storytelling rather than pure art music. For example, music can decide what mood to create for the scene.

AAJ: For video games, do you engrave your music or just play?

EC: I decide on a motive first for the main theme and then expand it from that element. I usually use my computer to write sketches. Sometimes I do a field recording.

AAJ: When you do film scoring and music for video games, do you apply jazz there?

EC: Even if it is not in the style of jazz, I think I use the harmony or rhythm related to jazz in my video games and other media compositions.

AAJ: Do you improvise when you create the music for commercial music or games?

EC: I sometimes start with improvisation and then make complete music, or sometimes I make a motive and improvise at the recording session. Sometimes I also have jazz musicians on my recordings.

AAJ: What styles or genres have you worked in? How would you describe your style?

EC: I think my style is jazz-based with pop and rock influences. Some people say my music has a classical influence as well.

AAJ: Do you have any Japanese influence in your music, melodically or harmonically?

EC: I have never thought about it. Maybe I have Japanese influence in the melody making. I do not know. I grew up in Japan, so I think I have influence but I never know what exactly is the influence. I never tried to write like a Japanese person. I just write what I have at the time. Maybe it sounds like "Japanese," but I do not care about it.

Recording Projects

AAJ: Before recording your album, have you done any other recording projects?

EC: Yes, I wrote a piece for my friend Wong Foo Jeng's album, Quiet Night Thoughts. I wrote one tune for this album, "Blackberry Winter." I also wrote and recorded music for the media. As a media composer, I have written some companies' image songs, which were three or four minutes long. The TV commercials were just 15 or 30 seconds long, but they uploaded the full music on YouTube. It was a fun experience to write for companies. I learned about them and expanded my imagination about their vision or brand concept.

AAJ: What were some of the highlights of your recording projects? Which one do you consider challenging?

EC: In Crossing Reality, I got interesting improvisation sections where players can have the freedom of what to play. It is always a challenge for me to make space, or let each player have freedom while having a composed section and keeping the concept of the composition. I also did some sound design for my album. I asked Taka [Nawashiro], a guitarist, to record some texture-based ambient sound, telling him my ideas and vision. I also used some effects as needed—reverb, reverse, delay and more—to make the piece more dramatic or cinematic. I usually write a piece that has a story, background or an inspiring concept.

It was challenging to get a nice sound when we recorded the horn section remotely. If we tape the horn section together, they sound good but if we tape just one person at a time, it is hard to match the tone or the room sound. That was the main challenge. But I think it worked out well.

AAJ: You mentioned the grant that helped you to fund your album. Could you talk about that grant?

EC: It is called Pathways to Jazz. I applied for the grant in 2021, when everything was not going well because of the coronavirus. I was happy to have the funding because it can cover some budget for making an album. At the same time, I also found a label in Japan [ReBorn Wood] that was interested in releasing my album.

AAJ: After the album is released, do you have any new recording projects that you want to work on?

EC: I would like to follow my interest or inspiration at the time, so maybe I will try a smaller ensemble, or solo, or maybe a big band at some point. I would like to expand my musical world through my career.

Crossing Reality

AAJ: Tell me about Crossing Reality. How did you start creating this album? Any stories behind that?

EC: This is my first album as a leader. The album consists of my original jazz compositions, from a piano trio to a ten-piece ensemble. I wanted to make an album that has that variety. I collected the pieces that I wanted to record first. That is why the album has a lot of variety in instrumentation. The piece "Crossing Reality" is based on my concept of being between awake and sleeping. I like these being-in-between concepts. I wrote this piece around three in the morning.

AAJ: Did you start writing the pieces for the album after you applied for the Pathways to Jazz grant or did you have it before that?

EC: I had finished the pieces before applying for a grant to make an album. I found a good rhythm section in Japan, so I wanted to re-record those pieces and make an album.

AAJ: What did you want your listeners to get out of this album?

EC: I want listeners to expand their imagination inspired by my music and just have fun. I also want to thank all the people who have supported me all the time, including my family, friends, mentors, audience and more. That is what I wanted. You can just enjoy the album in the way you want. You can listen to it while drinking coffee, reading, dancing or maybe before going to bed.

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