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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.
When I think back over the places I’ve played, I feel very fortunate to have performed in so many amazing venues. Of course I’m still buzzing from our Blue Note debut earlier this year.
Once a concert promoter in Japan who really believed in me flew me to Japan to play a solo piano concert in a Buddhist temple. It was such a beautiful setting. It was a historical temple and you weren’t allowed to bring anything inside. The audience had to sit on the floor. I remember I played a solo jazz piano arrangement of the traditional Japanese song “Sakura.” The power went out but I kept playing in the dark. It was such a special spiritual connection between the audience and myself, something that can’t happen in a club, concert hall or festival.
My highlight to this day as a performing jazz musician was in September 2011. I had the great honor of performing in New York City at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Generations in Jazz Festival”. It was also a special live recording of Marian McPartland’s NPR radio show Piano Jazz.
I arrived in the afternoon at Dizzy’s with my trio. We were the first ones there. The only people besides us were Todd Barkan (the curator at Dizzy’s and legendary Keystone Corner in San Francisco) and Marian’s producer. Todd told us to go ahead and play. It felt a little like an audition. We played a blues. Todd looked over and smiled but kept up his conversation with Marian’s producer. It seemed like it was fine to keep going, since we were still the only people there. So we played my original song “Mr. B. G.,” which is a tribute to Benny Green. This time Todd clapped but still continued with his conversation. I wondered if we would still be playing in the festival that night.
We decided to keep going and played “I’m in the Mood for Love.” I play it kind of up-tempo with a key change and a Bill Evans flair. The Italian pianist Dado Moroni was now also sitting in the audience. I was feeling warmed up and more relaxed so I started going for it a little more. I looked over and saw Todd Barkan standing behind me with Carlos Henriquez, the bassist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Okay, they were definitely listening now. As soon as we ended the song, Todd ran up to me and said, “You’re going to play both sets tonight and you’re going to play that song!” The rest of the night just seems like a dream when I try to remember it.
Marian McPartland performed. So did Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Baron, Larry Willis and Bill Charlap, to name just a few. It was a festival full of legendary pianists … and me! It was so much fun just hanging out in the green room with those legendary musicians, but as soon as the music started everyone listened intently to whoever was out on stage. Were they going to listen to me like that? The room was completely sold out and we got an incredible response from the audience. It felt great playing to an audience like that in New York City, but nothing could have prepared me for the feeling I got when I walked back through the door into the green room and saw Mulgrew, Kenny and Larry. The whole room, filled with so much piano talent, was giving me a standing ovation! Bill Charlap shouted out, “You played your ass off!”
I always loved music. My mother was already playing music for me when I was in the womb. She would play Bach, Debussy and Tchaikovsky. She played all kinds of music around the house in my early years. She would play Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, sing along with Sammy Davis Jr. — she could sing every word even though she had no idea what she was saying! I remember the first times I heard live music I literally felt this chill down my spine. I didn’t know what it was at the time but it still happens to this day when I hear some music that really speaks to me.
Growing up in Japan, I heard a lot of Japanese popular music (we call it J-POP). It’s like pop music in the US in that it follows a formula but there are even fewer variations. One of my American friends once asked me what some J-POP lyrics were about. I said they were about love. Every J-POP song is about love. Isn’t it the same in America?
Maybe everyone thinks their generation was more valid but I really think the popular music in Japan was better when I grew up than it is now. There surely was more melody. My parents listened to a lot of Enka which is traditional Japanese popular music. Think of it like the country music of Japan.
I don’t think any of the music I’ve mentioned so far had much influence on the music I play now. That came instead from my older sister. She was way ahead of me already, listening to music from America. She not only listened to the popular American music of her generation but also a lot of music from the 60’s and 70’s. I remember she would make cassette tapes for me. She turned me onto The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell … the list goes on.
I’ve actually covered songs I first heard on those tapes. Of course I’ve transformed them into a jazz piano trio setting.
Through my study of classical piano, I listened to a lot of Chopin and Beethoven. I think that had some influence on my playing, but more so in my original compositions. When I began studying with Minoru Ozone he put me on a strict listening diet of Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and Bill Evans. Shortly after, I discovered Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. That was still just the tip of the iceberg. The music of these masters has been, and continues to be, a source of great inspiration. If I can generate the incredible feeling that any of them emanate when they play music — even if only for a moment — then my purpose in this life has been well served.
Let me start by saying that every moment I spend playing music is a memorable one. Of course when you are performing with a well known musician you are more conscious of trying to remember the moment but the truth is good music knows no names. I get asked the question a lot about who are the people I’ve played with that stick out in my mind. All the jazz that I like seems to come from groups in which the musicians played together for a very long time and I think it’s influenced my own philosophy and approach to playing jazz. I like the familiarity of playing with the same people because of the higher form of communication that only comes from playing together for years. It’s the unspoken things that happen spontaneously in the music and can’t be written on the chart. The moments that stand out the most are ones with my own trio, that’s when the music just plays itself.
“It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.” — Oscar Peterson
I do have memorable moments from playing with some well know jazz musicians, too. When I played with Slide Hampton he called the song “Laura,” which I didn’t really have memorized yet. Luckily the bass player helped me out through the first chorus. Slide could play an entire solo comprised completely of quotes from other songs and sound good doing it!
Playing with George Garzone and Jerry Bergonzi was such a thrill. They are both heroes of mine. I was probably overly conscious of comping behind their solos since I know how picky they are about what harmonies are played underneath their improvisations.
Playing with Arturo Sandoval was a study in Afro-Cuban music. He was such a joker, but became very serious as soon as the song was counted off.
Terri Lynne Carrington was all business when we met briefly before performing for a tribute show, we just played one song and it was a blues. After my solo she looked at me with a big smile of approval, and I felt like we were friends.
Kevin Mahogany and Rebecca Parris are both world-class singers that I’ve had the honor to perform with on multiple occasions. They aren’t only great singers, they are master musicians.
One of the more memorable musicians I performed with was Jon Faddis with the Ryles Jazz Orchestra, in which I held the piano chair from 2000-2004. I remember he came in and completely changed the sound of the band. He conducted us with so much positive energy – even we couldn’t believe how good the band was sounding. He was also a comedian but when he took a solo it was like jazz truth, everyone wants to play like him but nobody can — he had quite an aura! He counted off one song so fast and I was hoping he wasn’t going to make me take a solo. Of course he pointed to me for the first solo and he kept encouraging me to take more and more choruses, I felt like he was testing me. After my solo he looked at me with this big smile then at the end of the song he made me stand up and take a bow again. I don’t think I will ever forget that.
“My family thought, as did I, that I’d return to Japan after completing my studies at Berklee. After graduating I did like a lot of international students and did practical training which allowed me to stay here and work for one year. I was just starting to play a lot professionally in Boston so I decided to apply for a 3-year artist visa. I ended up forming my own trio and establishing myself as a bandleader so I renewed my artist visa for another 3 years … then another. The longer I stayed here the more my family realized I wasn’t coming back.
“My mother and father visited me once in Boston in 2002. They made the long flight from Japan and got to see what I’m doing. My father went back after a week, but my mother stayed for a month. I dragged my mother along to every gig and when I wasn’t playing I’d take her out to see live music. I even brought her to New York. She was already understanding the appeal from seeing things in Boston, but going to New York would open her eyes to things she’d never seen in Japan.
“We went to Smalls Jazz Club in the Village. Jason Lindner’s Big Band was playing. I remember the late Dwayne Burno was playing bass and I know Myron Walden was in the band. Everyone was on stage but the drum chair was empty. All of a sudden the room got really quiet as Jeff Ballard unexpectedly walked in and sat behind the drums and proceeded to make that night an experience that neither my mother nor I nor anyone in attendance that evening will ever forget.
“My mother always held hope in her heart that I would return to Japan. Until that day. She not only understood but now also encouraged me. She realized to do what I really wanted to do I had to be here in the US.”
“I was born with perfect pitch. Even before I started taking piano lessons I played everything by ear. I remember everyone was very impressed and although I was only 4 years old I somehow realized this was something I was good at.“The thing is I didn’t know anything about music, I could hear all the notes in a chord but I didn’t know what a chord was! I wanted to take piano lessons and in Japan the way to study piano was (and mostly still is) from the classical music tradition. That meant reading music and memorizing, for those who don’t know that’s what you do when you play classical – you play a piece of written music. The talent of perfect pitch, which is what initially got me interested in
music, was no longer being used.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love classical music (particularly Chopin and Beethoven), and it afforded me with technique for playing the piano, not to mention all the necessary music theory. I became a classical pianist and enrolled at the Osaka College of Music in Japan. I continued to use my perfect pitch on my own to figure out other music or songs that I liked and it was still an asset for learning classical pieces, but I wasn’t using it to full capacity in my directed music studies. That would eventually change.
“One day I saw the movie titled Always, and one of the main songs in the movie just hit me on such a deep level. It was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” I
remember asking my friend what this music was and they said, jazz! This was the moment when I knew this was the music I wanted to play.”
Fourth of July weekend has come and gone. The heat of summer is here, and we’re all wondering how to stay cool. Wonder no more! You can stay cool in terms of both temperature and attitude by coming to one of Yoko’s shows in the Boston/Cambridge area. For more information on any of these events, visit the Shows page.
The next day I checked out of the hotel and Makoto picked me up again and drove me to where I was going live – with a host family in Brookline in a big house with a lot of other exchange students also living there. I remember when he dropped me off I felt so lonely and sad and I was very nervous. He told me I’d be fine.
I met my host mother, who was very nice and was a big music fan. She was excited to have a Berklee piano student living at the house. We sat down and spoke English together and she asked me what percent I understood of what she was saying. I told her 50 percent but it was probably more like 30 percent!I actually had to attend one semester at an English school before beginning Berklee. Since I was on a top scholarship, Berklee called me in Japan to see how my English was. I just remember answering “yes” and “no.” I thought I did pretty well but they thought it was best to study a little English before starting at Berklee. To be completely honest though, I really couldn’t speak English at all.
“When I came here from Japan in 1997 to attend Berklee, I never thought I would one day be teaching there,” Yoko said. “My original intention was to attend Berklee straight through and return to Japan as soon as I graduated.”
Yoko never applied for a job at Berklee — the school approached her three years ago and asked her to join their piano faculty. Now Yoko has a full schedule at Berklee, teaching between 25 and 30 private piano students each semester.“My students are mainly focused on either jazz or classical but I’m committed to teaching whatever style someone is interested in,” Yoko said. She was offered the opportunity to take over a class from a well-known Berklee teacher who’s retiring, but she turned down the offer to keep doing more of what she likes, private lessons.
“It’s easier to share knowledge which is more closely connected to performing when I teach private lessons,” she said.
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