Welcome to YokoMiwa.com! If you haven’t yet explored the site, take a few minutes to look around.
We just completely updated the Video page with performances from the trio’s shows at the Blue Note earlier this year and at Sculler’s in 2012. You’ll also find videos from Japan, a testimonial from jazz singing giant Sheila Jordan, and a whole lot more.
Visit our Photos page for shots of the trio in action, Yoko as a solo pianist, and other photos taken by many talented photographers.
Electronic Press Kit
Want to get to know Yoko and the trio? The quickest way is through out electronic press kit, which you can view here:
Yoko is performing constantly as both a solo pianist and with the trio. Find out when she’ll be in your area by visiting the Shows page.
And that’s just the beginning. Click on the any of the links above or on the right side of the page to explore the site. Thanks for visiting!
Yoko has sold out Scullers for five straight years, and this year will likely sell out, too. So don’t delay, get your tickets today!
“Mr. B.G.” (written by Yoko in tribute to Benny Green)
I’m sure when I first started playing piano at the age of four I must have been improvising because I had no idea how to read music. I didn’t know what a scale was. I didn’t even know middle C. I remember playing all day long because I just loved it. I wish I could remember what I was playing at that time, or even better, I wish I could hear it.
I have a lot of jazz harmony knowledge, and my perfect pitch allows me to hear everything, but there is something to be said about just knowing the music in a mechanical way. I’ve studied all the jazz theory. When one of my Berklee students asks me what I’m playing, I can demonstrate but I also have to be able to explain the concept and theory behind it. You have to know your scales, keys, chord scales, modes, tensions, substitute chords, reharmonization, etc. I agree it’s all useful and necessary knowledge to be able to improvise.
When it comes down to real improvisation, I always think the most important thing to do is transcribing solos. This is the one thing that I know that has helped me the most. I’m not talking about playing a solo already transcribed in a book, I mean actually transcribing it yourself. It’s a difficult process at first. There’s a learning curve though and you get better at it the more you do it, which I think is part of what helps you to improve at improvising.
I recommend for pianists to transcribe both right and left hands. I hear lots of pianists who have obviously taken note of the right-hand single lines the masters of this music have played, but the left hand is often wrong. It’s really important to have the left-hand chord voiced in a way that supports the tonality of the right hand improvisation, and the same goes for the rhythm and timing. If any of these aspects are off, it can clash. The right hand is the focus of most pianists when it comes to
improvising, but I really try to focus as much on the left hand in my teachings. I think it’s necessary to make the whole thing work.
You can’t just go out and play transcribed solos that you’ve memorized though. That’s not improvising either. When I first started I used to take a standard tune and transcribe a lot of different pianists playing the same song, like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and even horn players like Charlie Parker. Then I would write out a solo with 2 measures of Oscar, 2 measures of Bill Evans, 2 measures of Charlie Parker, then 2 measures of myself. I actually wrote down my own improvisation. I would do this in a random order.
Eventually the transcribed solos were being taken over more and more by my own improvised phrases. For me, it was a great way to learn the necessary vocabulary. When I first started improvising, I had nothing to say myself because I had a limited vocabulary. Going through the process of transcribing — figuring it out myself and writing it down — filled my ears with phrases and a vocabulary that stuck with me. I think I became a better improviser because I had a lot more to say.
There were many cultural differences I noticed when I moved to the US from Japan. My initial impression was that Americans were less polite than the Japanese, but they were more friendly. I never saw strangers striking up a conversation with each other in Japan, and I was shocked to learn that students called their college professors by their first names! At least they did at Berklee.
In Japan, image is very important. People care what other people are thinking about them and how they are dressed. I felt in the US though, people dressed however they wanted and nobody cared. Even after all these years I still see people dressed so crazily and I think to myself, “Never in Japan!”
I was shocked to learn there was no time schedule for the city public transportation in the US. In Japan, the schedule of all the trains is displayed in every station and the trains show up exactly when they’re supposed to because in Japan, being one minute late is a big deal.
In Japan, a piano lesson usually consists mostly of pointing out the inadequacies in someone’s playing, then saying good job in the end. In the US, the focus is mostly on the good qualities of someone’s playing, then maybe adding one thing they need to work on. Japan is focused more on technique but the US is more focused on spirit. Most American musicians seem overly confident, while Japanese musicians are always telling themselves they have to work harder.
Most Japanese will tell you, though, the main difference is the food. If you’ve been to Japan then you know what I’m talking about, but if not I have to say I’m sorry, but food is better in Japan. There is of course great food in America but you have to look for it and it is usually expensive. Most restaurants here are more focused on profits than trying to make the best food they can.
Everyone in Japan takes eating very seriously. It’s an experience and not just something you do for nourishment. So many places have food displays, it’s actually a big business in Japan where companies make artificial food for display that looks identical to the food being served.
Restaurants take so much pride, regardless of the price. It could be a noodle stand on the corner with room for only about 6 people, but you can bet it’s going to be good. It has to be or they would be shamed and certainly would never be able to stay in business. Mostly though I was shocked at the portion size in the US. When I moved here I couldn’t finish it, but now I can. Uh oh!
Lastly, I never saw a vending machine chained down in Japan, if you left your wallet somewhere in Japan it would probably still be there the next day. Oh yeah and there are a lot more bikes in Japan. A lot!
Note: In the last edition of the blog, Yoko talked about playing solo piano. In this edition, she talks about playing with her trio.
The first incarnation of my own group was actually a quintet; it was piano, bass, and drums with tenor sax and trumpet. I love to hear Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans play in any context, whether solo or in a larger group setting, but where I feel they truly shined was the trio setting. This isn’t why I chose to play as a trio though. My choice was more dictated by the financial opportunities (or lack thereof) that exist for performing musicians.
I recorded my first CD, “In the Mist of Time,” as a quartet with tenor saxophone. When I set out to book gigs for the quartet I quickly realized the amount of money that most of the clubs were offering was not enough for four people. Even on my first CD, I had a few trio tunes but I didn’t yet feel confident in playing an entire gig that way. I wasn’t going to let that stop me though, and before long I was comfortable being the main featured soloist the whole night. Also, to my surprise, people started to notice and compliment my playing much more than before. I actually had fans for the first time in my musical career!
I had always considered myself a supportive player who was good at playing in a group setting or backing up a singer, but being forced to go out and do gigs in a trio setting made me realize something about myself of which I wasn’t previously aware. I realized it may be possible that I actually sounded the best in this setting. I started to find it was also the truest expression of my playing — I didn’t have to conform or concede to the other musicians. In the trio setting, the musicians I played with were supporting me and conforming to the way I improvised.
This became a huge part of my musical identity and still is to this day. I find I don’t work well with musicians who are more concerned with making themselves sound good at the expense of the entire band. I like a team player. In my opinion, this approach is not helping jazz move forward. I see a lot of bands comprised of top musicians where individually everyone is so talented, but collectively the music often suffers because everyone is so concerned with putting their imprint on the music, rather than selflessly playing what the music calls for. It gets to a point where the music is secondary or irrelevant. It leaves me feeling kind of empty and it’s something I don’t want my audiences to ever feel.
On September 25, Yoko will be opening for saxophonist and vocalist Grace Kelly at the Larcom Theatre in Beverly, MA. GET TICKETS
From Grace’s website:
Grace Kelly is a truly unique artist. You have heard the name before from the movies but perhaps you haven’t heard of this 22-year old Korean American singer/songwriter/saxophonist/composer. Grace wrote her first song when she was 7 years old, recorded her first out of 8 independently released CD’s at 12, and orchestrated, arranged and performed an original composition with the Boston Pops Orchestra at 14. As a bandleader Grace has performed over 600 concerts worldwide in such notable venues as the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall and major festivals such as Montreal, Newport, and Montreux and clubs around the world such as Birdland ( New York), Porgy & Bess (Vienna), Ronnie Scott’s (London) and many more. Grace has also performed and/or recorded with artists such as Huey Lewis, Harry Connick Jr, Dave Brubeck, Gloria Estefan, David Sanborn, Questlove, Esperanza Spalding, Phil Woods, James Cotton, and Wynton Marsalis to name a few.
About the Larcom Theatre:
The Larcom Theatre, at 13 Wallis Street in downtown Beverly, was named for the town’s beloved nineteenth-century poet, author and teacher, Lucy Larcom, whose birthplace once stood at the same Wallis Street address. Co-editor of a magazine for female mill-workers in Lowell, Massachusetts; revered professor at Wheaton College; close friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier; and great lover of the beautiful in life and nature, Lucy Larcom departed Beverly and this world in 1893, leaving behind a shelf of memorable works, including A New England Girlhood and An Idyll of Work.
The Larcom Theatre opened with both stage and screen entertainment nineteen years later on October 28, 1912. The gala event ran with “rare first-night smoothness,” according to the Beverly Evening Times. An advertisement in the 1923 Beverly City Directory boasted that “The Reason why the Larcom Theatre is so Home-like, because the Entertainment always pleases, and one spends an Evening of Pleasure with Neighbors and Friends.”
The Larcom had become a films-only showplace by the 1930s. Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company purchased the Larcom in February, 1984. By then, the troupe’s stage magic production at the Cabot was entering its eighth year. Under the direction of Le Grand David founder and director Cesareo Pelaez, fifteen months of renovations by company members went into the Larcom. By October 1985 a new two-hour production of stage magic—all different from the Cabot Street extravaganza–was set to debut. In May 2012, Le Grand David and company completed a phenomenal 35 consecutive years of performances.
Playing solo jazz piano is completely different from playing with a trio. It’s much more of a challenge. If I stop playing, there’s no sound … only silence. The solo pianists I admire purposely use the silence as a voice. I strive to do the same but sometimes I feel naked on the stage.
You could just play the same as you do just minus the rhythm section, but that’s not really solo piano. There’s a lot of responsibility. I have to play the melody, chords, and bass line all while creating the rhythm and driving the beat — all by myself. I can’t rely on the bass or drums to have my back.
I’ve listened a lot to pianists like Lennie Tristano and Dave McKenna. I studied how they played bass lines and how they played both chords and melody at the same time with only the right hand. I remember Bill Evans on Marian McPartland’s radio show saying his favorite style was solo piano because it was where he could be the most creative.
You’re almost forced to be more creative, but in some ways it happens easier because you’re the one in control. You don’t have to worry about giving a cue to the rhythm section, or worry if the bass player can play the key change, or if the drummer will play the change in tempo. It’s liberating to be able to do anything you want at any time without having to answer to anyone.
I play several solo piano gigs each month and people always ask me if I’ve recorded a solo piano CD yet. Not yet, but it may be in my future!
You’ve got quite a few chances to hear Yoko play this month. Full details and ticket information for each show are available here. Get out there and support live jazz. Thanks!
If you come to see me perform live, you’re bound to hear some of my original compositions, but you’ll also hear the music of other composers I admire as well. I listen to a wide variety of music. To me it’s like food, and you can’t eat the same food every day.
I try to avoid playing songs that I hear other pianists or piano trios playing. Instead I try to draw from non-piano-focused music. I love listening to other pianists and the way they improvise and interpret the music they play. It’s just not how I discover music that I want to play, because it’s already been done. I know there are a lot of pianists out there intentionally trying to sound like Brad Mehldau or guitarists trying to sound like Kurt Rosenwinkel. It makes sense from an educational standpoint, but it doesn’t make sense to me to go out in public and do that. Most of all, it just isn’t artistically rewarding to me.
I’ve spent a lot of time transcribing every note that Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner played. Not only did I focus on getting all the notes correct, but I also went back and tried to emulate their rhythmic feel and tried to get inside their touch on the piano. When I plan a set of music to play at one of my own performances, it doesn’t make sense to do that either. I love paying tribute to my piano heroes, but I also feel there’s no need to do a historical recreation of the past. Although I do sometimes try to think of a song that Bill Evans might have played if he had lived longer and I try to imagine how he would have approached it.
I don’t limit myself to repertoire which is traditionally labeled as jazz, but I believe jazz is a huge umbrella. I don’t listen to music with the intention of seeking material I want to perform in my trio. There may be a song I like, whether it’s a Brazilian song with vocals or something with a quintet from a classic Blue Note or Prestige album. Or it could be Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, or Bjork. It might be a Calypso song from the 1930’s or a Carl Perkins song I heard Patsy Cline sing.
First I’m am inspired and fall in love with a song. Sometimes I realize right away this is perfect for me and other times it’s not evident for a long time. Then I have to figure out if I can do it, I’m not talking about just simply playing the melody in the right hand and the chords in the left hand, which is the typical pianistic approach. It’s how I’m going to play the melody like the human voice sings it. That’s one of the most challenging things to do on the piano because you can’t bend the notes like a singer can. Or I have to figure out how I’m going to get that same rich sound and harmony of the quintet all on the
piano, or how I’m going to translate the strumming of guitar strings. Often the answer lies in how I use the arrangement of what the bassist and drummer play in my trio. I also have to determine if there’s an opportunity to use it as a vehicle for improvisation.
Sometimes it takes a lot of work just to get to the point where I realize a song isn’t right for my trio, but it might be perfect for solo piano. Sometimes I have to completely abandon it. A large part of what I would consider the “A list” of my repertoire is music I’ve been listening to for many years. I already adored it before I ever planned to play it myself, but when I really listen to what it has transformed into I feel like the music found me and not the other way around.
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