Miles Okazaki: Cleaning the Mirror

Daniel Lehner By

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In the backyard of his home in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, guitarist Miles Okazaki has spent time constructing a multifaceted backyard/garden filled with overhanging plants, stone walkways and a wooden pavilion surrounding a table and benches. The slats of the pavilion's floor seem to have been crafted merely for aesthetic purposes, but there's another process at work: the proportions of the ground structure are 144 in. x 89 in., which are, respectively, the 12th and 13th integer of the Fibonacci sequence (if one starts from 0). "I made this with the same dimensions [that] I made that music," he explains.

The music he was referring to is a series of records released under his own name that have been a linear tracing of his compositional approach. Mirror (Self Produced, 2006), Generations (Sunnyside, 2009) and Figurations (Sunnyside, 2012) have not only been a compendium of his compositions and improvisation, but also, much like the pavilion, a representation of Okazaki's holistic approach to viewing the rhythms of all things.

"I've never looked at music as separate from anything else," says Okazaki. "I've always been interested in things other than music. I'm into gardening, cooking, drawing, etcetra. I have kids now. I have all kinds of things happening. To bring things in holistically, I try to look at the shape of something and see how it could relate to something else. I try to keep examining the same few ideas for many different facets. I try to not have any separation between what I'm doing in music versus what I'm doing visually, the way I'm talking to someone, what I'm looking at in a movie, etcetera."

For what it's worth, the musical aspects that Okazaki has incorporated are already multifaceted. The guitarist/composer has crafted a unique style that draws sonic and technical inspiration from Brazilian popular music, Indian classical and bebop, among many others. The three records are each loosely tied to a musical concept (Mirror as a story of rhythm, Generations as a story of harmony and Figurations as a story of melody), though Okazaki states it's not that cut-and-dried.

"I did frame these records as explorations of rhythm, melody and harmony, but of course, all of the music has all of the three elements," Okazaki explains. "All of the music is pretty rhythmic. The question is whether the rhythm is focused on rhythm or if the rhythm is more focused on some other element. Rhythm is my primary preoccupation"

Figurations, the last in the series, is the sole live record and contains the smallest cast: Dan Weiss on drums, Miguel Zenon on alto sax and Thomas Morgan on bass. The album also effectively distils the amount of physical material from which the musicians worked. The scores (available for free viewing on Okazaki's website) are about 1-2 pages in length, whereas some of the material on the previous two records was more than double in length. For Okazaki, this reduction was liberating and culminating.

"For Mirror, I had written that music over the course of about five years," says Okazaki. Generations took about a year, and Figurations was written in about a month. I had very specific time when I had to write the music. I was dealing with the same ideas, but now they're at a minimal stage. This was all you needed. You didn't really need all this paper. For each tune, there's really only one interesting idea for each realm. For example, with the Fibonacci thing on Mirror, there's about 10 pages worth of notes, but on Figurations, it's just maybe one system or just instructions. There's one track on that record called 'Mandala,' where Dan [Weiss] never looked at any sheet music, but if you see it, it's horrible to look at—the drum part, that is. I said, 'Well, you just play this against that until it finishes and then that's it.' So you could just have that idea without writing it all out. [Saxophonist] Steve Coleman influenced a lot of that, and I came back to New York to write this record after a long tour with him."

Coleman's teachings and mentorship, to which so many musicians in New York attest, have had a huge impact on leading Okazaki into more comprehensive realms of thought. "I wouldn't just say it helped, I'd say it was a transformation," Okazaki says. "He has a transformative effect on people if you spend time with him and you're willing to do some work to get deep. He's probably the most brilliant musical mind I've ever encountered and I think a lot people feel the same. I've tried to understand his music the way he thinks about it rather than what I would think about it. I met him in between the making of the second and third records, so there's definitely some stuff on Figurations that was influenced by him. I try not to directly copy the vibe, but I certainly copied the technique and the concepts."


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