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Maureen Choi: A Fusion of Passion and Intent


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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.

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.

AAJ: Well, what I saw and heard that night was exceptional. Breathtaking really. Where might folks be able to catch a performance in the coming months?

MC: We are going to Asia in September. We will be all over China, Korea, and Taiwan. We are always playing in Spain when we are not on tour. In the early part of next year, in March, we will return for another tour of the United States.

AAJ: That's outstanding. Well I know it's getting late (nearly 9:30 P.M. in Madrid) and I should probably let you go.

MC: I suppose so, its nearly dinner time.

AAJ: That had to be an adjustment to get used to eating dinner so much later than what is customary in the states?

MC: Yes, we have dinner between nine and eleven. It makes sense because it is so sunny and warm here. It doesn't make sense to have dinner when the sun is blasting.

AAJ: That does indeed make sense. It also allows you to have something to look forward to and finish up your day with. So, I shall let you do that. Thank you very much for the conversation. I enjoyed it very much.

MC: Thank you. It was really nice talking with you too. Hopefully I will see you again in March when we tour the states.

AAJ: Count on it. Goodnight for now.

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