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Take Five with Meg Okura

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Meet Meg Okura

Hailed as "the queen of chamber jazz (All About Jazz)," Tokyo-native Meg Okura is a Grammy-nominated jazz composer and violinist based in New York, known for her music praised by The New York Times as "grandiloquent beauty that transitions easily from grooves to big cascades to buoyant swing." Ms. Okura leads her 10-piece Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, performing at renowned venues including Birdland Jazz Club and Blue Note. Additionally, Okura is the musical director and arranger of the Sakamoto Tribute Ensemble, dedicated to performing works by Ryuichi Sakamoto. As a soloist, she has performed with jazz greats including Lee Konitz, Michael Brecker, Tom Harrell and Steve Swallow, to name a few. Okura is the winner of the 2023 ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers) Fundamental Freedoms Commission Prize, whose premiere will take place on May 18, 2024, at Vanderbilt University. Okura's latest commissioned work, as the winner of the 2024 Wa-hi Jazz Composition Competition, will be performed by her Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble in New York City on November 2, 2024. Her latest album, Lingering (Adhyaropa Records), showcases a decade-long collaboration the remarkable synergy shared with pianist Kevin Hays.

Instrument

Violin (composition, erhu)

Teachers and/or influences?

While I haven't had formal teachers for the most part, my most significant learning came from attending the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop under the guidance of Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. I notice influences in my compositions and improvisation Classical composers such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, as well as Steve Reich. Others have told me that my music reminds them of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Pat Metheny, and Jean-Luc Ponty, and I think they are right.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I knew I wanted to become a musician when I was around four years old. It was a defining moment when I expressed my desire to become a composer to my mother, only to be told that girls couldn't pursue such a career. Despite this initial setback, my mother recognized my musical talent and encouraged me to explore it further. She discovered my perfect pitch and enrolled me in piano lessons at the age of four, followed by violin lessons. Although my mother didn't view "composer" as a viable profession at the time, her support and encouragement set me on the path to becoming a professional violinist and, ultimately, who I am today, a jazz composer and violinist.

Your sound and approach to music.

I aim to deliver music that pours from my heart, connecting with others on a genuine emotional level. While thorough knowledge of jazz harmony, vocabulary, and repertoire strengthens one's ability to communicate what one is trying to communicate, I also place a high value on authenticity and the development of one's unique artistic voice.

As a jazz composer, my diverse musical backgrounds enrich my distinct style, each contributing to a unique blend. In this realm, all aspects of my personal background are celebrated, shaping the authenticity and richness of my compositions. However, I aim to dig deeper into my artistic identity to find my true voice so I can contribute to the history of jazz in a more significant and meaningful way.

Your teaching approach

I do not teach for a living, but I do mentor students at Juilliard. My teaching and mentoring approach is rooted in honesty, effectiveness, and a commitment to the growth and development of my students as a whole person. I prioritize providing constructive feedback and guidance, even if it means addressing uncomfortable truths that other teachers might shy away from. I believe in challenging my students to reach their full potential and providing them with the tools they need to succeed, whether they are advanced violin students or non-music majors. My goal is to truly transform their lives through their encounter with me (if appropriate), recognizing the profound impact that I can have on individuals. I am not bound by the constraints of political correctness or being "woke," but rather focus on what will be most beneficial for my students' growth and development, especially for those coming from less-than-privileged backgrounds. I also believe that having had hardships and dire straits in my life helps me help others.

Your dream band

I would love to work with the following musicians, but not simultaneously in a band: Pat Metheny, John Zorn, Brian Blade, George Lewis, Anat Cohen, George Benson, Maria Schneider, Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck, Christian McBride, Rob Schwimmer, and WDR Big Band as a featured violinist and composer.

Road story: Your best or worst experience

Let me tell you about one of the wildest touring experiences I've had with Pharaoh's Daughter, a Jewish/Middle Eastern band with Avishai Cohen (trumpet) and Jason Lindner, 20 years ago. Picture this: we're heading to Colombia and Brazil for a series of gigs, and from the get-go, things start feeling a bit off.

As soon as we hit the airport, we were greeted by a swarm of "officials" demanding a "special tax" just to let us board the plane. We reluctantly all paid up, hoping to get it reimbursed only to be told by the promoter there was no such thing as a "special tax" at the airport.

Touching down in Bogota, our mode of transport was the back of a pickup truck. Our first gig was a workshop at the university, with potato bumps providing a curious accompaniment in the background.

Back at the hotel, we were confined indoors due to a raucous street demonstration. Though we couldn't understand the chants, they were all shouting in unison in perfect clave!

Our adventures only escalated in Brazil. A serene canoe ride through the Amazonas turned into a comedy of errors when security intercepted us, demanding paperwork from our guide. Cue a bizarre exchange that ended with blank sheets of paper miraculously serving as our authorization.

Arriving at the Amazonas, our guide casually suggested a dip in the water, and despite our better judgment, we dive in. It's exhilarating, until poor Jason Lindner fell ill that night, probably from who knows what lurked in those wild waters.

But the pinnacle of our journey? A concert in a border town, staged right on the street, with the audience perched on motorcycles and the stage perched as high as the second floor of a house.

And just when we thought we'd seen it all, the airport security on the way home asked me to play the violin right there at the checkpoint. A strange request, but I obliged and to our relief, they sent us off with smiles instead of further interrogations.

That journey remains as one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life!

Favorite venue

My favorite venue without a doubt is the Blue Note Tokyo. I had the privilege of performing there twenty years ago with the Michael Brecker Quindectet, and the experience left an indelible impression on me.

What sets the Blue Note Tokyo apart is not just its professional and helpful technical staff or stunning ambiance but also the unparalleled treatment we received as artists. The staff at this establishment treated each member of the group with the utmost care and respect.

From the moment we stepped into the venue, it was evident that every detail had been meticulously crafted to enhance our performance experience. Beyond the technical aspects, the hospitality extended to us backstage was truly exceptional. Whether it was the delectable cuisine served or the genuine kindness shown by the staff, every moment spent at the Blue Note Tokyo felt like a cherished memory.

In a world where artists often contend with the rigors of touring, the Blue Note Tokyo stands out as a beacon of excellence, where artists are not just performers but esteemed guests deserving of the highest level of respect.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

My favorite recording is yet to come out. However, the latest album, the duo album with Kevin Hays, Lingering, would be my favorite because it is the most recent one in eight years!

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I strive to craft music that blends various traditions without diluting their integrity, resulting in a uniquely authentic sound that embodies my signature style.

Did you know...

I was conceived to become a church organist for my parents' church in Japan. I used to play the organ and piano for the church before moving to the U.S. I still occasionally play the piano for a synagogue in New York.

The first jazz album I bought was:

Expressions by Chick Corea, Solo Piano

Music you are listening to now:

But Who's Gonna Play the Melody? Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer on Mack Avenue Records.

Desert Island picks:

Joe Henderson, Lush Life, Verve
Pat Metheny, Secret Story, Geffen
Chick Corea, Expressions, GRP
Brecker Brothers, Return of the Brecker Brothers
Sam Newsome, Global Unity, Palmetto

What is in the near future?

The world premiere of my new composition "Silent Screams: An Anthem for the Unheard" for a Solo Violin and Jazz Orchestra at the 2024 International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers Symposium at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenessee as the winner of the ISJAC Fundamental Freedoms Commission prize, on May 18, 2024. Then, I have another premiere as the winner of the Wa-hi Jazz Composition Competition on November 2, 2024 at the Wa-hi Jazz Festival. Also, the fifth album of my Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble (mixed and mastered) release is yet to be determined.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?

Being distracted and not able to play from the heart.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

"Lush Life"

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

"Will You Hear My Voice" is my composition on the album Lingering as an instrumental track. However, this is actually a song (which has never been recorded) with lyrics in Hebrew by Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931).

By Day:

A loving stay-at-home wife to soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

An architect, painter, lawyer, or actor.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Abraham Joshua Heschel—I think we will have a stimulating conversation.

If I could go back in time and relive an experience, what would it be?

Touring with Michael Brecker Quindectet.

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