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Maureen Choi: A Fusion of Passion and Intent

Jim Worsley By

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I got addicted to improvising and creating something so alive. I feel so free with no borders of genre. —Maureen Choi
Maureen Choi is certainly not the first musician to find their way into the improvisational jazz world after years of training as a classical violinist. It was an unlikely direction for a woman who grew up with formal classical training and further had never really listened to jazz. Fast forwarding to the present, we now have the Maureen Choi Quartet. A nothing-short-of-brilliant ensemble of musicians who play and compose with intense and fiery passion. Choi's music is a seamless symmetry of jazz, flamenco, tango, and classical music. It's fusion of the highest order with an upper echelon compositional base and musicianship to match. The quartet released its third album earlier this year. Theia can honestly be described as both engaging and magnificent. If the odds were already stacked against her career as a jazz musician, the near fatal automobile accident slammed the lid down that much harder. In a recent conversation, Choi spoke candidly about the horrific accident, the other obstacles she has overcome, her childhood and background, her music, and, of course, unravels the mystery of how she became a "jazzer" in the first place.

All About Jazz: What was it like growing up as a young girl in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

Maureen Choi: I was very fortunate that in Ann Arbor there is a lot of support for the arts. I had so much exposure and support the community of artists and teachers. Everybody basically plays something. My high school won a Grammy. Everyone was either in the choir, the band, or the orchestra. There were a lot of youth orchestras and I played in a lot of those. Lots of opportunities to play in the public schools. I was very active. I had private lessons in violin, piano, and ballet.

AAJ: I'm sure you put countless hours into these endeavors. Did it leave time for anything else, to simply be a kid?

MC: Well, my parents never pushed me to play. I did it because I wanted to. Then I was also into drawing and reading. My mom always says that I never left my room. I was always in my room playing the piano, or playing the violin, or drawing inside my piano books. I dance all the time. So, yeah, I kept myself pretty busy.

AAJ: At what age did you hit the crossroads and make the decision to choose one of the three specialties in order to put your full focus and commitment into the violin? Was that a difficult choice to make?

MC: When I was twelve, my mom told me that I had to choose. My violin teacher told my mom that I had to become a violinist. My piano teacher told my mom that I had to become a pianist. My ballet professor told my mom that I had to keep dancing.

AAJ: You were being pursued and pulled in three different directions. Did that make the decision that much more difficult, or did you already have a leaning?

MC: Without even thinking twice about it, you know, because when you are a kid you are so honest, I chose the violin. When you are a kid, you aren't thinking about making money or taking on responsibilities. That's the beauty of being a kid. So, I stopped dancing. I did continue with piano lessons until I was about fifteen, but it became a lot less serious.

AAJ: You stopped the ballet dancing but later dove head-first into salsa dancing, did you not?

MC: Yes, when I was in Minneapolis and Boston, I danced all the time and, yes, especially salsa dancing in the clubs. I actually quit the violin for a while. I quit the violin from age fifteen to twenty.

AAJ: That's more than a while. Five years is a long stretch when you are that young. What precipitated that move?

MC: I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had been playing the violin since I was two and a half years old. I wanted to be sure that playing was my choice and not just because it was under my chin my whole life. I also had some other interests. I needed to figure out if I wanted to dedicate my life to playing the violin. I knew that playing the violin, or any other instrument, is a lifetime commitment. Especially at the level that I want to play at. I try to excel in anything that I do. I wouldn't want to play the violin at a mediocre level and have it be that I just played it once in a while when I felt like it.

AAJ: It's all in or nothing.

MC: Exactly, exactly. During that time, I discovered ballroom dancing and Argentinian tango and the samba. I studied psychology. Still played the piano a little bit on weekends. I worked at Whole Foods and at Starbucks. I wanted experiences other than what I had been exposed to. After venturing off on to these different realms and weird jobs, I always came back to the violin. So, at age twenty, I committed myself to the violin. I went to college late. I was twenty when I went to Michigan State.

AAJ: Before we get into Michigan State, I wanted to ask about your mom and dad. They are both from the classical world, yes?

MC: My mom was a professor in Korea. She used to sing soprano. She studied in Vienna. She never really had a touring career, but was always very dedicated to music education. She taught a lot in Korea. My father wasn't a professional musician, but he played the guitar. My parents met in a church choir and both really loved music. Music was playing at our house all the time.

AAJ: Between the music at home, and the vastness of the community and public school's music programs, you were thoroughly immersed in music from the beginning.

MC: My dad used to make cassette tapes too. They had all kinds of different music on them. No matter where we were or where we were going, he always had music ready to listen to in the car. He was always busy putting those together. So, yes, music was twenty-four-seven.

AAJ: Now when you went to Michigan State to study and broaden your classical music skill sets you met a gentleman named Rodney Whitaker. Not much of a story there I suppose. He only changed the entire course of your life.

MC: (laughing)Rodney Whitaker is the director of jazz studies at Michigan State University. They have an awesome jazz program. The classical and jazz students are basically all together in the academic classes. So, all the jazzers were in most of my classes and I befriended many of them. I got to know Rodney and he heard about my ear. I have perfect pitch. He kept telling me that I needed to take his class. I kept saying no, that I needed to work on Bach and my technique and that I don't have time. He told me that I was a jazzer but that I just didn't know it yet.

AAJ: Turns out he was right.

MC: Yes (laughing), finally the next year I took a class. I got addicted to improvising and creating something so alive. I felt so free when I was playing. His class really did change my life. Not only did I come to love jazz, but I was able to take all my classical chops with me. I had this freedom to create music. There were no borders of genre. When I played the blues, it was different than someone like Rodney who had been playing them for years. He just had me start playing and improvising and I did so in an almost naïve or honest and organic way. I didn't know the concept of swing at that point. Rodney comes from a very black area of Detroit, so I wasn't playing anything even close to what he perceived as jazz. He had me just opening myself up, playing, and trying things. When I then became immersed in jazz improvisation, I learned that jazz has become very academic. So that's why I then went to Berklee to study jazz academics, the language, the standards, and all that.

AAJ: At Berklee you met someone else who has impacted your life just a bit.

MC: (laughing) Yes, I met my husband (bassist Mario Carrillo) there. I was twenty-seven or so by the time I went to Berklee, and I wasn't so much in student mode anymore. I benefited most from being able to play a lot. I met a lot of people from South America and from Spain. They started asking me to play in their recitals and performances. I met people from all over the world, so naturally, already having an interest in Latin culture and salsa dancing, it was a natural progression that I would meet people from Venezuela and Colombia and we would go salsa dancing. We became friends, so then I would play with them and record on their cds. Salsa dancing for me was a very recreational thing. It let me blow off steam from a really shitty day and just let loose and have fun. I never thought that I would start playing Latin salsa music. I had it separated. During the day I studied very hard. At night I would go out and have fun. They were separate from each other. But then I started both playing and dancing salsa.

AAJ: Next you and Mario decide to take on New York City by storm. That had its ups and downs.

MC: Yes, we got tired of having to share our apartment with five other people. We had to live pretty far away because it was the only thing we could afford. We would go play gigs that would pay you like thirty dollars and you would need that thirty dollars to get a cab back home. We did that for a bit, and I was working at a restaurant. Finally, I just thought, what is the point of this? I was nearly thirty, and this was not the quality of life that I imagined happening.

AAJ: This would be about the time Mario's home country of Spain enters the picture. Was that a difficult transition to uproot from the states to Spain?

MC: It was at first, in the sense that everything is different here. Everything! Mario wasn't quite ready to return home yet. He had some options to pursue in Boston. But I finally convinced him that it would be the best thing for us to do. It was a very good decision. The quality of life here in Madrid is very high. And we don't have to share apartments! (with a laugh) We were fortunate that Mario's family helped us out a lot. We already had a home to live in and many other essential basic things covered. That obviously made it a lot easier. I mostly needed to work on assimilating.

AAJ: So, you are really digging life both personally and professionally living in Spain.

MC: Yes, because I can really study and grow here. It's a really good blend being American and Korean and now with the Spanish culture. My lifestyle is everything I love from each culture. I have the option and privilege of saying that I like this about being American, and I like this about being Korean, and I like this part of the Spanish culture. I select the things that I like from each culture.
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