Maureen Choi: A Fusion of Passion and Intent

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: You take the best and leave the rest. Makes a lot of sense.

MC: Yes, if I don't like something about the Spanish culture, I simply say I am not Spanish and leave it at that (more laughter).

AAJ: (Laughing as well) That's much to your advantage. How many years have you lived in Madrid now?

MC: We are going into our seventh year.

AAJ: You mentioned that "everything is different" in Spain from the way it is in the United States. Can you give us a couple of examples of that?

MC: In the states the culture is more about movement and innovation. There is a lot of energy and a push for something new. Here in Spain the culture is slower paced. The push for innovation is way less. It is more stagnant. More of an old world feel. Coming to Spain really helped to mellow me out. In the states I just felt like I was running all the time. Always in a rush to get from one place to another. Always running to the next gig. Here, I am able to sit back and enjoy life better and to take it all in. I can live at the tempo that I decide to take it at. When things are not open between 1:30 to 4:30 you have to sit your butt down.

AAJ: In talking about your music, your first record, the self-titled Maureen Chol Quartet, was a lovely collection of timeless standards that you put your own spin on. It wasn't until your second album, Ida y Vuelta, that you had your own compositions and the Latin-based sound. Was the thinking process with the first record along the lines of establishing yourself as a jazz artist before embarking on a more personal journey?

MC: Yes, that first record I did with Rodney and all my idols from the Detroit metro area. Yes, that album was a push to do it and to get into this world. The second record is all about my love of the Latin music and the salsa dancing and all those elements that we talked about earlier. There is actually a similarity between the Latin culture and the Korean. They are both very much about family and food and sharing. That whole old world feel. I think that is why I was able to feel so comfortable in meeting people from South America and places like that. There are many things in common. I had no plans on playing Latin music, as I said before, but it happened very naturally in the process of making new friends and feeling at home in that environment.

AAJ: Did composing the Latin tunes come naturally to you as well?

MC: You know, the funny thing is that I never used to think of myself as a songwriter. It wasn't until I went to Berklee and was more or less forced to do it as homework assignments that it started to come together. The homework they gave us was basically to compose this, using these rules, so that you can understand how the structures work. All the songs that I wrote, as it turns out, had a hint of Latin. Melodically in particular. I had some friends help me with the rhythms. So, Ida y Vuelta was already cooking in Boston. I refined it even more when we came to Spain, and then again when we met our band.

AAJ: Your most recent record, Theia, is remarkable in both compositional depth and musicianship. It is such a strong and significant record. You must be, and should be, very proud of it.

MC: I am really proud of that record because it is a culmination of all my experiences. It really represents who I am as a person, and who I am as a musician. It's a very honest album. Everything that I am interested in is there.

AAJ: In writing your compositions what is the process? For example, how do you create an epic piece like "Phoenix Borealis?"

MC: This is where the creative process gets interesting. I'm a very melody person since I play the violin. I always compose on the piano. I never compose on the violin. I don't know why really.

AAJ: It seems that most musicians do regardless of the instrument they play.

MC: Yes, and I wonder how my writing style would change if I started on the violin. I think it would change a lot. That's something I have to explore.

AAJ: Yes, it would be interesting to see what differences that would make in your compositional approach.

MC: I think so too. In answer to your question, though, I start by coming up with melodies on the piano. Then Mario comes into the process. He has a way of looking at things from a very global perspective. One of his strengths is in arranging. He knows all my strengths and weaknesses, and he knows my potential. He can listen to my melodies and have a very wide vision of their potential. Since he is a double bassist, he is able to come up with grooves. He is also very interested in flamenco and Latin rhythms. We share that quality and are able to work together on that. He introduces his ideas to me, and we decide what we like and don't like, and we build a concept. We go back and forth a lot with this process over a period of time. Then when we feel like we have enough material, we take it to the band. We have been playing together for seven years now, and they know exactly what my objectives are. So, they are able to make suggestions and the process continues.

AAJ: It's a process then of several fine-tuning sessions to meet those objectives.

MC: We have created the voice together, yes. The style continues to grow as we have played a lot of shows together and know each other very well. We are very close. After we bring it to the band, it becomes a finished product.

AAJ: Pianist Daniel Garcia Diego and drummer Michael Olivera are the bandmates you refer to. How did your rhythm section come to join the band?

MC: Dani and Mario lived together in Boston when they were studying at Berklee. They were already friends, and I met Dani at Berklee as well, right before he went back to Spain. Dani has a great background in classical music and techniques. He also is into flamenco, jazz, and Spanish folklore. When we moved to Spain, we knew that he was the guy to call. We didn't have a drummer since we had just arrived in Spain. So, we went out scouting for a drummer. We went to concerts and clubs and came across Michael playing one night. We knew right away. After the concert we just went and asked him if he would like to be part of the band. He said to send him the music and, well...

AAJ: The rest is history.

MC: Exactly, exactly.

AAJ: About ten years ago, you had a very impactful moment in your life. We can respectfully move on if reliving that nightmare is uncomfortable for you. However, it is an important story for people to understand what you have been through and the courage it took to come back from it.

MC: I don't mind talking about the accident. After I got the jazz bug in my ear at Michigan State, I went on to study with a teacher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I had been studying there about a year and a half when I had the accident. I was driving back to Minneapolis from Ann Arbor after seeing my family for Christmas. It happened at a time when I was really at a crossroads to stay with the classical music and try to get a job in an orchestra or teaching. To do the right thing. I thought, how on earth at twenty-five years old, am I suddenly going to start a career in jazz. I had dedicated my life to that point to classical music. So how do you just start over like that? I had a lot fear and apprehension about having to start a new career from scratch. Most of my friends were getting their doctorates and starting to make money. So, there was the pressure to start making money. Fear, and cultural pressures, and my own self-imposed expectations, were making it a difficult time for me to decide what I wanted to do. I was trying to figure all that out when the car accident happened. I couldn't play the violin for two years.

AAJ: Did the doctors say that you would never be able to play again?

MC: Yes, because I broke nine vertebrates. Three in my neck, and six in my thoracic spine. The accident was horrific. I escaped death. I was lucky that I didn't damage my spinal cord, or I wouldn't even be walking. The doctor told my mom I would never play again. But she didn't tell me that until a long time after I had healed and was already playing again. She didn't want to put that on me and further kill my mood.

AAJ: That was smart. That would have added depression on top of what you were already dealing with.

MC: Yes. It was the smart thing to do. In my head I was going to recover, and I was going to play again. That's what I was working on.

AAJ: The accident, in the long run, made the decision for you. Under the heading of life is too short and doing what you want to do.

MC: It was the catalyst, yes. That's when I applied to Berklee with that goal in mind. Before the accident, I don't know if I would have had enough courage to audition at Berklee.

AAJ: One more question in regard to the accident, and then we will move on. How much did it affect your overall mobility? The real question here is, can you still dance? We have talked about how important that has been for you.

MC: Yes, I was lucky. I have full mobility now. I can do everything. For a longtime I had a lot of pain and muscle atrophy. I had to go to physical therapy five days a week. The healing process took a long time. I still have to maintain my back with physical therapy. I will likely be doing that for the rest of my life. But I take that over dying (much laughter).

AAJ: (laughing along with her) Well, I am glad that you are able to laugh now and put it behind you. There is a lot of life put into your performances. Having seen your quartet play recently, at the Bacchus Kitchen in Pasadena, I was struck by the degree of passion you all have for your music. It must be exhilarating and inspiring to be surrounded by that kind of passion and to live in that environment.

MC: Yes, Very much so, yes. I feel very lucky that the people that I share my life with, and share a stage with, all have a certain kind of intensity. It's one of the reasons that we come together so well. There is also a lot of intention behind everything we do. We are very detail oriented. When we go on tour, we want to make sure that everyone is happy and comfortable. We don't want anything to get in the way of that focus and intensity you need to have to perform at the highest level.
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