Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Yoko talks about learning to improvise

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

“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.

Photo by Caroline Alden

Photo by Caroline Alden

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.

Navigating the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

sushi

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.

vending machine

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!

bicycles

Yoko talks about playing in a piano trio

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Note: In the last edition of the blog, Yoko talked about playing solo piano. In this edition, she talks about playing with her trio.

YokoRegattabar-30 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!

in the studio 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.

See Yoko Miwa and Grace Kelly on September 25!

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

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.

Yoko talks about playing solo piano

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Photo by Caroline Alden

Photo by Caroline Alden

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!

Yoko’s September shows

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

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!

Photo by Caroline Alden

Photo by Caroline Alden

How Yoko approaches arranging songs

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

photo 3 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.

music

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.

Harvard gave me this piano 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.

Yoko talks about some of the standout places she’s played

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

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.

Kakurinji Temple in Kakogawa, Japan

Kakurinji Temple in Kakogawa, Japan

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.

L to R: Yoko with Bill Charlap, Marian McPartland, Larry Willis, Mulgrew Miller

L to R: Yoko with Bill Charlap, Marian McPartland, Larry Willis, Mulgrew Miller

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!”

Yoko on the music she listened to growing up

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

listening

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.

composing

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.

Yoko looks back at some career highlights

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

The Yoko Miwa Trio at the Blue Note in New York.

The Yoko Miwa Trio at the Blue Note in New York.

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.

Jon Faddis and Yoko

Jon Faddis and Yoko

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.


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