Yoko Miwa: New Star in an Old Sky

Gordon Marshall By

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Self-effacing but with healthy ambition—and genuinely glamorous—pianist Yoko Miwa is a shimmering study in contrasts. Her music is loyal to sources and roots, yet it is fresh and sexy. Everything is in balance in her work. On a most elemental level she is like a graceful hostess at a grand party, catering to the desires of all; on a deeper level she is an architect. Imagine, far from her native Kobe, Japan, a dilapidated ballroom, say, in Detroit. Say it is the place where the old jazz masters used to play, and you walk in through the doorway for old time's sake. However, the joint has been refurbished, everyone is dancing, and everything is sparkling. That is how it is to listen to Miwa.

It is indeed special to experience her music. And paradoxically, though her music is quite easy on the ear, it is so rooted in feeling and discipline that ultimately its most loyal followers may be the weathered, seasoned jazz fanatics happy to see fleet fingers and a young face gliding over the keyboard defined in its history much by a line of persecuted, neglected and self destructive males. Miwa takes good care of herself, and with her soft, masseuse touch on the keys, makes sure she will not be ignored.

Despite the effortless sheen that tops off her style, Miwa is no stranger to labor. Classical lessons beginning at four were later supplemented with rigorous ear training, and assignments to transcribe and perform long strings of classic jazz solos. Thus her work has a complexity to it belied by its simple surface. It is as if we were looking at the still surface of a lake, and very slowly coming to recognize the nuances and shades of the water, the currents, the driftwood and the plankton. Miwa lets these details play against one another, rather than fix them to fit a defined signature style. That said, it is precisely this play that allows for surprise and the unexpected, as the tiny elements collide and clash with each other.

And despite her democratic embrace of many styles, her deep emotional sway always comes up in the end to direct the flow of song. In many cases, starting with a familiar theme, Miwa will become so lost in the feeling of that song that her solo will become a thing of its own, independent and blossoming away from the theme, but still connected and in harmony. Miwa is at a crossroads in her career, a very strong, vibrant presence on the Boston scene set to serenade a national audience. She has the gift and the right stuff. The question is how her style will unfold over time. One thing is certain. Miwa is so authentically true to herself that however her music ends up fitting itself into the trends and niche markets that characterize modern music, she will always be loved.

Light years from her stage persona, complete with diamonds and a black evening gown, is Miwa's serious, cerebral presence in person. Her reverence for the jazz tradition is deep, setting her apart from so many for whom a break with the past is the holy grail of jazz. It shows in her work. She can play the blues as if she came from the South. She explains this cultural metempsychosis.

Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.. So she learns the words in English. She doesn't know what she is singing, but she can sing it!

"When I switched to jazz, Makoto Ozone was Japan's leading jazz pianist. His father is a Hammond organ player. He also plays piano but he was known for playing the Hammond organ. He was playing organ in a late-night show so everyone knew who he was. He's like Hank Jones, that kind of player. 'Don't touch my organ!,' he would say to Makoto when he left for the day; but when he came home, the organ was turned on. So he was already playing.

"The father, Minoru Ozone, my mom's friends knew him, so when I told my mom that I wanted to study jazz, my mom's friend introduced me to him. That's when I learned about his son, too. He went to Berklee and his first job was a world tour with [vibraphonist] Gary Burton."

"Minoru—his teaching is like, 'Just listen. Copy what I play.' And the first time I went to his lesson he played this entire song, 'Tenderly.' And he played the melody, the solo, and the melody again. He gave me the tape and he said, 'Learn this by next Sunday.' I was 19, playing classical in my music college. I had technique, and I was born with perfect pitch. So I could do it, but he said, 'Don't write anything down.' So I played the tape every day, all day, and then started just note by note. It was a lot of work, memorizing six choruses of melody and improvisation. I memorized one chord at a time. The most difficult part was getting the swing feel. That's the way I learned swing. That's why I don't have a problem swinging. I see lots of Asians, we don't know how to. We don't have that in our culture." There is still the mystery of the feeling involved. "My mom listened to any kind of music even when I wasn't in her body. She loved music. So I think I got it from her."

"The reason I wanted to study jazz is that I heard the song 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' from a movie. I was like, 'Wow, this is beautiful.' I didn't know anything about it but I liked it. And my friend said, 'That's jazz.' Then I started to research, and I went to the CD rental place. I asked a clerk which one I should listen to. He said Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock. So I got the records and brought them home but they were too out for me. I had to turn them off." Curious that she would find jazz so demanding when she was familiar with the rigors of classical. "Jazz is completely different, the sounds and voicings. But once I listened I liked it.

"In Japan everyone wants to hear a singer, like Sarah Vaughan. It's very simple music. But what I was hearing now was very new to me. Minoru's playing wasn't really like that. He was really a bebop player." Minoru made even the laborious transcription process inspiring, like putting together pieces of a mosaic. And he was floored, after two weeks of effort, to hear her achievement, which he requested she perform for people throughout his school. "He wanted to show everybody. He was really surprised He freaked out. 'Play it again!...' I became one of his favorite students, and he owned a jazz club. He played weekends. He asked me to work as a waitress, so I worked Friday and Saturday night, four or five hours, and I could listen to his band. I did that for four years, and that's how I learned real jazz. Once in a while when there weren't many in the audience he would say, 'Now Yoko, why don't you come up and play?' That was great. Also he had a radio show, and he invited me to play and for an interview."

Miwa is in her element when she performs, shining brightly, everyone loving her. "I try to stay focused. For me, the most important thing in playing jazz is focus. If my mind is somewhere else when I'm playing, I can't play anything. My mind's trying to go somewhere and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do... Don't worry, don't worry, just play.'"

Some of her songs, "Wheel of Life" and "Silent Promise," are quite sad, even heartbreaking. "I like sad songs." But it is difficult when she's on stage, going down into these dark emotions, especially when she is tired, "always, and in the perfect way."

"When I was 23 there was an earthquake in Kobe, and Minoru's music school was destroyed. I was working at the school, teaching classical, basic jazz, and accompanying singers. But we lost all our jobs and they said, 'Do what you have to do.' I thought, 'Maybe I should study jazz, now that I have time, and I found The Koyo Conservatory of Music. In my second year, the president asked me to apply for a scholarship to Berklee. I said, 'I'm not going to America!' But I changed my mind at the last minute. The Berklee professors travel all around the world to audition for this scholarship. I wanted to see how much I could do, so I just said, 'Do it,' and I won first prize. I didn't want to miss the chance."

Miwa fell in love with her new country, though. She was playing so much jazz at Berklee that she developed a case of tendonitis. "I never had a problem with my hands when I was playing classical but when I came to Berklee, I played too much. I was too excited."

Japan still holds a complex place in her heart. "I go back once a year, when I can. I missed this year. It's getting harder and harder, especially with my new seat at Berklee. I miss my family, I miss my country, I miss everything. I wish we lived closer. I would like to be there, but it just doesn't work and I want to be here, and they know that works for me. They used to say, 'Oh when are you coming back? You told me just one year.' That was my plan. They used to give me a really hard time to be in Japan, but now they see that I am enjoying what I do, they understand more and more, and they are really supportive. They gave up, basically. I want to go home as much as possible. I have connections in Japan and they book my concerts. My dream is for more back and forth, and I can see my family more often."

In Miwa's work, the tradition is fore-grounded and her own style is set in a detailed way, though heavily, in the background, almost a reversal of the two. This is akin to Japanese art, where nature exists on a much grander scale than man. The jazz tradition, which goes back in time four centuries through slavery—she puts herself in a humble place within that, but a very strong one nonetheless. "I always respect where it comes from, so I always like to learn from the jazz tradition." Even when she dips into traditional Japanese songs with "Red Dragonfly" on her debut CD, In the Mist of Time (Tocuma, 2001), "I played it with a bluesy gospel feel rather than a traditional Japanese one."

That said, she is very much part of a generation including Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and John Medeski. She also loves Brad Mehldau, but feels too many try to copy him. "Still I like swing, Oscar Peterson," and her grand elegance is even reminiscent of Teddy Wilson. "I cannot decide exactly my style. I want to mix it, and I kind of worry, 'Is this weird?' But still, it's my song, there's nothing weird about it."
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