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."

Beyond his involvement with his working groups, Okazaki has been seen as a regular assistant in Coleman's master classes taught at New York's Jazz Gallery. Coleman's classes incorporate everything from introductions to his special brand of rhythmic theory to comparisons of music to other movements and cycles in the universe. Okazaki explains, "You may not think of the rotation of heavenly bodies as a type of rhythm. Even though they're moving slowly, there is a rhythm there."

Okazaki's composite interests have been something of a cycle itself. Before guitar, the young Okazaki had exposure to numerous facets of both music and expression. Born in the small town of Port Townsend, Washington, Okazaki was encompassed by both the visual beauty of the waterfront community and by the creativity of his parents.

"My mother and father were both visual artists and my stepfather was a builder," Okazaki explains, "so I was into making things very early, making drawings, objects, carving things, little sculptures, things like that. I got into music when I was about seven. I was pretty much self-taught. I had one teacher that showed me different kinds of music, some of it jazz like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but also African and folkloric music. So I was pretty into the idea of music coming from all over the place."

Okazaki's first training was in a program now referred to as The Centrum Jazz Workshop, located right in Port Townsend and, at the time, run by saxophonist Bud Shank. "That was starting when I was about 13," Okazaki says. "I got to study with some great guitarists, one big influence being a guitarist named Emily Remler. I also got to study with people like Larry Coryell, Joe Diorio, John Stowell and all these guitarists had different approaches. George Cables was there every year, which was great."

Outside of the camp, he started to hone his chops as a gigging musician and solidifying his interest in jazz standards, one he still holds to this day. "I was playing solo guitar gigs when I was about 13, playing for food and tips at an Italian restaurant. I eventually branched out into playing with bass and drums and things like that. That was actually a really good experience, doing five years of steady gigs when I was a teenager.

Okazaki left Port Townsend at 18 to study at Harvard University, where his interests were still fairly heterogeneous. "I was interested in math and physics, but I was kind of self-taught; I didn't really have the formal experience that some of the prep school kids on the East Coast had," Okazaki explains. "I had taken these advanced courses with no teacher, so when I got there I was a little overwhelmed. I kind of didn't understand the classroom approach. I turned away from that and focused on things like music and film. I kind of became default English major and studied languages also. I got a very broad and quality liberal arts background."

Though he wasn't studying guitar at the time, Okazaki kept up his interest in music with visiting professors like pianist/composer Anthony Davis and artists like saxophonist Steve Lacy, while also playing in stage band. "[Davis and I] were studying specific figures like Monk, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, etcetera," says Okazaki. "He showed me where the music came from historically and culturally. I met Steve, who I really admired for his discipline."

Despite his strong interest in music, it wasn't until after his undergraduate studies that it seemed to become a path. "When I was there, I wasn't really set on music, I was kind of bouncing around things and when I graduated I had to decide what I wanted to do. I decided on music and I gave myself 10 years to see if I could get something going," Okazaki says.

The process started in New York in 1997, when Okazaki enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. It was here that he'd encountered one of his most significant teachers, guitarist Rodney Jones. "I moved to New York because I wanted to meet some people; I didn't really know anybody," says Okazaki. "There were three guitar faculty members at the time: Jack Wilkins, Chris Rosenberg and Rodney Jones. I went to the audition and played some things for them and they graded me. They asked whom I wanted for my teacher and I said I didn't know. I went to look at the comments and I got two A's and one C-minus. So I said, 'Okay, give me the one who gave me a C-minus,' which was Rodney."

Jones ended up acting as a major influence on Okazaki from a technical standpoint. "He saw that a lot to work on," Okazaki continues. "I had some good facility on the guitar at that time, but my technique was pretty poor in terms of knowing the history of the instrument. I had just tried to pick up stuff from other instruments. I had to reinvent my technique, which took about two years of sounding really bad, where I had to change my whole posture, position, everything. Rodney taught me things about groove and rhythm and how it related to time feel. Not as much focus was on harmony."

Not only was he a strong guitar teacher, but Jones was also a major component in Okazaki getting gigs and understanding the music business. "Rodney was really connected in doing music production," he says. "He was the music director for [singer] Lena Horne and he was kind of a guitarist/producer role in a lot of situations. I was also doing assistant work at the time, doing music copying by hand, things like orchestral projects for musicians. I was doing it without a computer, just using a calligraphy pen. I did stuff with him for Lena, Ruth Brown and a lot of projects he was involved in. He recommended me for some gigs on guitar. One of those was for [saxophonist] Stanley Turrentine, which I had done right at the end of Stanley's life. We did one tour and some stuff at Birdland [in New York City], so I was sad it was so short, but it was formative thing, playing on a professional level with older musicians."

One ensemble at Manhattan School of Music ended up becoming the personnel for Mirror, comprised of Weiss, Zenón, bassist Jon Flaugher, reedist Christof Knoche and a guest spot by [saxophonist] Chris Potter."We just played some gigs and then I started writing music for that group," the guitarist explains. "We did a lot of gigs in New York City. I met [alto saxophonist David Binney through Dan Weiss and I met Chris Potter (who's only on one track; we did a whole session but I ended up not using it) at the Thelonious Monk Competition. I had met him at other occasions, but we had played together at the competition and I asked him if he was interested in doing a record."

The compositions on Mirror are indicative of Okazaki's interest in music from the south of India, inspired in part by Weiss' studies with tabla master Samir Chatterjee. "I'm not a percussionist; I just liked the sound of it," says Okazaki. "I did get a little drum called a kanjira that I figured I could get happening because it has similar physical characteristics to a guitar. The right hand is doing a rotating motion, the left hand doing a sort of squeezing motion. I got a teacher named Ganesh Kumar and I've studied with him on and off for about 10 years, but I didn't get very deep into it in terms of performing classical repertoire, as it's not it's not my primary musical culture; it's something I was trying to get some structures and rhythmic ideas from, but I'm not that interested in fusion of instruments."

Okazaki was also inspired in part by Carnatic and Hindustani music. These studies exposed him to shapes as musical forms and rhythm as a complex system. "I hadn't found something that ordered and systematic as far as rhythm goes," he explains. "It had very precise, calculated types of things, which I hadn't seen before, basically forms for improvisation. You could have time taking a different shape, like square or rectangular. That idea of a directionality of linear time, the same way you might hear a melody that you think is going to resolve a certain way, the rhythm can do that, too. At the same time, I was also very interested in contrapuntal rhythms and layers. There's one track on the record called 'Canon' and also 'Momentum' where there are several different cycles that line up a certain way. I wasn't aware at the time of what Steve Coleman was doing; I was just figuring out this contrapuntal thing I could explore. I was definitely making an effort to make it not sound like any kind of Indian music or overly derivative."

The record also manages to include musical extrapolations of various mathematical principles, like the aforementioned Fibonacci sequence, fleshed out on the record as various patterns. "The expanding and contracting thing on 'Howl,' that's one of those patterns," Okazaki explains. "It's all boxes and you just take the stuff out of the middle and put it on the ends and then it's a shape like a wave. It's 8-7-6-5-4-5-6-7, so instead of having it be a bunch of 6's, you just take two or one from the middle and redistribute it and then it makes a different shape. I'm attracted to the idea of illusions, where you might hear one thing a few different ways. That gives people something unexpected."

The process of creating Mirror, which also includes a lot of post-editing effects like backwards playing, created some issues that Okazaki sought to smooth out with later releases. "The Fibonacci thing, the idea of something growing and growing, was on a tune on that record called 'Invention,'" he says. "I didn't really know how to control it at the time and the chart for that thing is ridiculously long. The score for that record is 64 pages, which is really too much sheet music. I didn't know how to get to the core of the idea. I was about 20 years old and didn't have the edit thing happening. I have the same ideas but they weren't really refined then. I still like the record, it represents a certain moment in time, but some of the music is more complex than it should be. There's a track on there called 'Spiral' that we were never able to perform live because it was just too difficult. It was basically a studio creation."

The sophomore release continued on the same path as Mirror, but created a more streamlined process. Generations, (which has the same core personnel but adds in Binney and vocalist Jen Shyu), was recorded as a single take. This ended up creating a much more organic process for all involved.

"On Generations,"Okazaki explains, "it's not as tightly packed as the first record, because I planned Mirror really precisely. It moves really quickly through all these elements. "Generations" is more like a performance; it has the more natural ebb and flow of a live set. That's why I wanted to do it in one take, besides the fact that it saves a lot of money. There are more subtle rhythmic things, like things slowly changing into other material. The name comes from things being generated; one thing creates something else. One element might generate something else, but it'll take a while to grow there. The mood is more contemplative. It's supposed to be one thing. They're the same ideas as Mirror, but more trimmed down. I was dealing with how many things could be generated with these seeds, which goes for rhythm, melody and harmony. A lot of it has to do with the improvisations.

"There was a very specific thing I wanted to do with triads with the three horns, which is sort of symbolic, you know, a trinity thing," Okazaki continues. "I wanted it to be a real dense kind of closely voiced sound in the same register. With me, I can switch between being a rhythm section person or being a melodic voice, so I go back and forth."

Figurations further purified the process by removing the presence of takes, recorded live at the Jazz Gallery. By this point, Okazaki had reached the point where he more or less found the elements he needed. "Doing it live was something I wanted to do to create the natural progression of things and capturing the vibe a particular moment and particular evening, where I wasn't too concerned about mistakes or imperfections," Okazaki explains.

What sets Okazaki's presence as an instrumentalist and composer apart from many other guitarists is that the records he makes are not necessarily "guitar records." In the liner notes to Mirror, he states that while the guitar may guide the course of the record, the central focus is on the ensemble. Okazaki reflects this sentiment in his presence as a musician.

"As a functional musician," he says, "I want to know as much as I can about my instrument. I'm fairly obsessed with the technique of the instrument, the history of the players, all of the different ways the guitar is played around the world, the different things I can bring to it, classical guitar, etcetera. I'm interesting in pushing the limit as much as possible, what I can do physically to deal with the guitar and to do that at the highest level I possibly can. But with music, I try not to think about the guitar anymore. I just want to be able to use that and not have any barrier with it. So all the physical stuff is work that I put in every day, but I don't think of that as music, I think of that as calisthenics. I still get a good feeling of it, working on speed and accuracy, but I think of music as everything else."

Much like other "conceptual musicians," Okazaki is also uninterested in forcing his viewpoint of the extra-musical concepts of his compositions on his fellow instrumentalists. "I don't want everyone else to be like me," he says. "I want everyone else to be who he or she is. That's what makes it interesting to play in a group. I would probably prefer to just not say anything and deal with how people react to what I present. Whatever they do is always going to be better than what I have planned.

"Now, some people are going to be curious about it," Okazaki continues. "Like Jen, she was interested in what was going on. I was like that in her band too, where I asked her about where those lyrics had come from. So, that helps me, if I'm playing in someone else's group. But some people don't want to do that and they just want to bring what they bring. Miguel [Zenón], for example, I've talked to very little about the concepts, but I have a feeling he already has his own version that's he's figured out. He has something he's worked on that helps him get his sound, so it's not my place to tell him otherwise."

As a musician working with multiple spheres of reality, it would be quite easy for Okazaki to get caught up, frustrated or doubtful. But he's explains that the distillation of these realities is what keeps him centered. "It's easy to get overwhelmed with all the things you think you should be doing, things you could be doing, things you could compare yourself to, the things you could get excited about and get sidetracked by, etcetera," the guitarist explains. "I'm trying to pick a few small things and work deeply on those things in a holistic way," Okazaki explains. "So if I'm interested in a cycle, let's look at all the different cycles there are. We have cycles in forms of music, we have cycles of the plants as they die every year, we have the cycle of this Venus transit that recently happened, and that happens every 105 years. To me, that gives me some sense of something I can deal with and not get overwhelmed."

Okazaki recalls a quote by saxophonist John Coltrane that served as the inspiration for naming the first record. It represents how he has continuously been able to refine his ideas and also determine what might happen next. "He [Coltrane] said, 'There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give, to those who listen, the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.'"

Selected Discography

Miles Okazaki, Figurations (Sunnyside Records, 2012)
Patrick Cornelius,
Maybe Steps (Positone Records, 2011)
Miles Okazaki, Generations (Sunnyside Records, 2009)
Jane Monheit, Surrender (Concord, 2007)
Miles Okazaki, Mirror (Self Produced, 2006)

Photo Credits

Page 2: Juan Carlos Hernandez

Page 5: Eddy Westveer All Other Photos: Courtesy of Miles Okazaki

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