Junko Simons Cello Magic.


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Ms. Simons with Tom Plsek, (Courtesy of Thomas Simons)

Ms Simons has made major contributions to the quality of my life as a music gallery gnome. She brings out the best in her collaborators and rides a whirlwind of activity teaching and performing in the region.

What brought you to music?

“I come from a family of musicians, so I wasn't really brought to music, but rather music was brought to me. My dad is a piano technician whose family had a music store in Japan. He played violin when he was younger and still plays some piano. My mom was a vocal major in college, and she had a private piano studio in Japan. My sister has a master's degree in piano performance and also played some violin.

I started piano lessons when I was four years old. When I was five or six, I performed my first piano recital. The song was not “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or “Mary Had a Little Lamb"—It was an angular, surrealist song written by Jane Smisor Bastien, entitled “My Green Umbrella" (the inspiration for my Outpost series name). It started innocently with a pentatonic scale, but quickly mutated into augmented intervals and chromatic runs; so I guess that even from the beginning, I've always been drawn to music which is a little bit “outside." Ms. Mieko Nasu, my first and only piano teacher, is still alive and teaching piano today. My dad still tunes her piano. She is about 103 years old.

When I was nine years old, my sister asked me what stringed instrument I wanted to play. I didn't want to play the violin because she already played it. I didn't want to play the viola because I didn't want to learn alto clef, and the double bass was just too big for me. One day she brought a cello home from school for me to try. It was a perfect fit. So that's how I wound up playing the cello.

Growing up, music was something I did just for fun. I enjoyed singing too. I didn't start out my college career as a music major. I enrolled in Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin as “undeclared." But when my advisor Janet Anthony (who also happened to be the cello professor) heard that I played the cello, she erased the calculus and English literature classes and instead enrolled me in music theory and orchestra. I still delayed declaring a major in music for over a year and a half. Janet introduced me to sound dimensions and aural colors alien to a traditional classical musical upbringing. She also introduced me to such composers as Takemitsu, Shostakovich, Martinu, and Pärt. From her, I learned how to listen to myself and others in new ways."

Describe your role models, muses and mentors.

“I am who I am today largely due to the encouragement of my husband Tom, who saw so much more inside of me that I ever thought was possible for myself. He was heavily into jazz way before we met, and he introduced me to a lot of artists. We're always discovering new music together. In grad school (Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois), Hans Jørgen Jensen was my cello professor. Hans is a big inspiration to all musicians who have had the privilege to work with him. Cellists were always in the practice rooms first thing in the mornings and were the last to leave late at night. He was my musical savior when I was becoming downtrodden with the stodgy people and repertoire of the conservatory by encouraging me to play more contemporary music such as Britten, Mayuzumi, and Hindemith. If it weren't for him, I never would have survived those two years.

More recently, David Lee taught me about interpreting jazz charts, playing improvisation, and the importance of musical space. He is infinitely generous with his time and talents. In addition to being a professional recording engineer, he is also a great guitarist and a terrific teacher."

Describe your community of colleagues and audiences.

“Joe Morris is definitely the one who has had the most to do with getting me out and playing. Joe and I first met at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, when we were both “between gigs." He was the Concert Hall Manager, and I was the Assistant Director of the Preparatory Studies Division (a glorified administrative assistant with a gold-plated title). It wasn't until a few years later that I saw him perform with Matthew Shipp, and Joe and I started talking about making music together. Joe first introduced me to Allan Chase, Tom Plsek, Luther Gray, and Jim Hobbs. Then the circle grew larger as I met more people such as Steve Lantner, Laurence Cook, Forbes Graham, Jacob William. Lately, I've become part of what's shaping up to be a regular group with Jeff Platz, Kit Demos, and John McLellan. We've played a few gigs in Boston and a couple in Maine. We've also varied the group with such guest appearances by Daniel Carter, Billy Elgart, and an upcoming performance with Achille Succi. There's a great energy to the group with enough space and freedom for all of us to musically speak our minds, and yet still stay in synch and support one another.

I have enjoyed playing with a multitude of terrific musicians from the Boston area and beyond. Eighteenth months into the Green Umbrella series, there are always new people in different combinations, so every episode is a new “experiment." In my classical past, I never really got the chance to play with non-classical instruments, especially drummers or saxophonists. By being around so many wide-ranging influences, I have learned a lot about my own cello playing. The cello is flexible because it can function like a horn, while it can also play rhythm.'

What role does teaching have in your work?

“More accurately, it's the role that my improvisation work has in my teaching. I pride myself on being able to teach cello at any stage of musical development—from grade school “little squeakers" to college-level, music majors preparing for grad school. In general, I try to hide my improvisation persona from my younger students because I believe it's imperative that they first learn the basics and classics. I emphasize the importance of good technique and make them learn scales, etc. But I also consider all my students to be intelligent artists who, once they've learned the vocabulary, can make their own musical decisions. I love it when my students argue with me over musical ideas, innovate a new way of phrasing a passage, or find their own fingering for a pattern. It means they're engaged and thinking, which is more important than making sure their bows are going in the right direction. I don't want to crank out students who can only play what's on the page, but also try to inspire them to be independent thinkers, who develop and apply their own artistic and intellectual opinions."

How have changes in the economy impacted your work?

“In general, the down economy hasn't really affected my teaching, since many parents make music lessons for their kids a priority. There have been a few students, however, who have had to drop lessons for financial reasons.

As far as my playing goes, the economy (good or bad) isn't really a factor. The audiences are small, but there is a core group who are very supportive. For most improvisation gigs, things are going well if you break even. My “day job" allows me to do what I want “at night," which is fine with me. Through my teaching, I'm still focusing on music; and I don't want to rely on anyone else to support my eccentric, extracurricular musical activities. Besides, I never expected to get rich playing this kind of music."

Describe your current and potential future projects and collaborations along with things you would like to do.

“My first major CD appearance as an improviser on Joe Morris's Camera (ESP 4063) was just released in October 2010. Joe is planning to release our duo CD in the spring. There is also an upcoming project with Daniel Carter, Jeff Platz, Kit Demos, and John McLellan. When I was in Wisconsin last summer, I did a recording session with Steve Peplin (guitar) and Ben Hans (drums), which is also in the works. The Green Umbrella Series that I produce at Outpost 186 in Inman Square, Cambridge, MA is into its eighteenth month and the audiences have been encouraging. I plan to keep on keeping on, if for no other reason than to find out what's around the next corner."

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This story appears courtesy of Brilliant Corners, a Boston Jazz Blog.
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