Yoko Miwa Trio at Thelonious Monkfish this Sunday

June 27th, 2013

This Sunday, June 30, at noon, the Yoko Miwa Trio will be playing at the Asian-fusion restaurant Theolonious Monkfish in Central Square, Cambridge. The restaurant’s slogan is “jazz for the palate,” but on weekends, they like to bring in some jazz for the ears as well.

The tone of the menu at Thelonious Monkfish is as whimsical as the name of the restaurant. Some of the items come with a paragraph of fictional biography, such as the fairy tale sushi rolls. Someone obviously put a lot of care and good humor into this detail of the dining experience. One Yelp reviewer, Amelia M., summed up the content of menu nicely: “The worst thing about Thelonious Monkfish is picking what you’ll have to eat… because everything sounds extremely amazing. After being tormented for a long while, I settled on an old standard: tofu pad thai. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Yum.”

A word to the wise – at a place popular enough that the door is always opening and closing, the summer heat gets in! If you like it nice and cool, be sure to make reservations or arrive early, because it’s an intimate venue and prime tables can go quickly.

This will be the Yoko Miwa Trio’s first time performing at this venue… who knows, if enough fans turn out, maybe someday Yoko or the whole Trio will have their very own punny namesake dish on the menu!

Yoko Miwa

Thelonius Monkfish is on Mass Ave., not far from the Central Square T stop. (524 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 – Map ) There is no cover charge, but reservations are recommended – call (617) 441-2116.

Defiance: Reviewing Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VII

June 20th, 2013

Previous episodes of Ken Burns’s JAZZ showed how jazz symbolized hope, relief, or escape for Americans during the Great Depression, but the seventh episode, “Dedicated to Chaos” shows jazz as a symbol of something else during the Second World War: defiance. This is one episode that is self-contained enough and good enough that I recommend it whether or not you watch the rest of the series.

To many people, both in the U.S. and Europe, jazz represented democratic ideals. It was the music of the people, homegrown, soulful, wildly popular, and with anchors in African American culture and racial diversity. The Nazis took note, first trying to ban jazz because it was “negro music”, and then attempting to co-opt it by writing their own lyrics to well-known jazz songs. The film includes an eerie clip of a jazz performance in a concentration camp which the Nazis staged for a propaganda film. The co-opting didn’t work — musicians and audiences would not let the music come to stand for oppression and racism — and underground jazz clubs in cities like Paris thrived.

Jazz was an encouragement to everyone fighting. Towards the end of the episode, there is a wonderful interview with pianist Dave Brubeck. He describes being a young soldier destined for the front lines, when he stepped up to the piano during a Red Cross show for the troops, and after one night’s performance, he was asked to form a morale-boosting band. He probably entered the war questioning whether he would make it out alive, yet he played alongside Blacks in an integrated military band, became an renowned pianist and composer, and lived to 91.

Music can bring alive the spirit of healthy defiance against adversity in all of us. What music do you listen to when you want to get charged up and ready to face anything? Are any of Yoko’s pieces on that list… perhaps the dynamic La Estacion, for example?

Yoko Miwa Trio

Space and Time: Reflections on Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VI

June 13th, 2013

By the 1930s the center of jazz had moved from Chicago and Harlem, where it lived in the 20′s, to Kansas City. The sixth episode of Ken Burns’ series JAZZ, describes this period and the birth of Kansas City Jazz. One of the hallmarks of this form of big band swing was that few musicians read music; it was all memorization and playing by ear. By this point in the series, half of the air time has been devoted to the ten-year span of the Great Depression, which some critics feel is too much. That may be true, but on its own it’s a good episode, telling the stories of jazz artists who made it in KC, from Count Basie to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

Trumpeter Clark Terry recalls half-jokingly, “Well, Count Basie became very very, very popular through the medium of the notes which he didn’t play more so than the notes which he did play. He developed this habit through the medium of his socializing in Kansas City. The Cherry Blossom, the little club that they played in, was a place.. with tables all in gingham tablecloths, and everybody was very intimately arranged, you know. So Basie’s piano was right next to a table, so he would have friends – naturally everybody in the place is his friend – so he has a little taste over here, the rhythm section’s playing… so all he has to do is “plink!” and then he goes over and “yeah, hey man, it’s good to see you!” and has a little taste over here. Meanwhile, the rhythm section’s still going, he comes back, “doot dee doom” and goes over there… so his social life contributed to his sparse indulgence on the keyboard.

Whatever the reason, we always say that Basie was the reason who taught us all, beginners and old-timers alike, a very very important lesson, and that is the utilization of space and time in jazz.”

The Yoko Miwa Trio has played some delightfully intimate venues, but wandering away from the keys for a drink seems like something only a jazzman in the 30s could get away with like Basie. Still, that notion of space and time is meaningful, and what you don’t play creates just as much resonance as what you do.

Compare The Beatles’ version of Paul McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” to Yoko Miwa’s cover performed at Scullers Jazz club. Both make great use of pauses, leaving plenty of space between the phrases, but in Yoko’s interpretation, her right hand gently “sings” the melody with lots of room to breathe, while her left fills in the continuous background.

In Memoriam: Mulgrew Miller

June 6th, 2013

Last Wednesday, May 29, the music world lost someone very special. Mulgrew Miller, a warm-hearted jazz pianist with a sweet and bouncy touch on the keys, died at age 57 after suffering a stroke the previous week.

As a bandleader, Miller was most well-known for his group Wingspan, made up of piano, vibraphone, saxophone, and sometimes flute. As a sideman, Miller was equally impressive, playing on over 400 recordings. While his style was rooted in jazz greats that came before him, particularly in be-bop, he was always an innovator. For example, in the 90′s, he played with The Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a group of four to five pianists and a rhythm section.

Yoko remembers, “I first heard him on his album titled “Work” with local drumming legend Terri Lyne Carrington. He’s a pianist that everyone of my generation respected and admired. He was a great educator sharing his knowledge graciously. You could tell he checked out every jazz pianist in the history of this music. I mean not only checked them out but he could play like them down to the articulation, phrasing, rhythmic approach and touch. He brought such a wide stylistic palette to his playing which is something I also try to draw influence from.”

In addition to his talents as a musician, Miller was a passionate music educator and mentor. In jazz style he was most influential in the 80′s and 90′s, but in teaching, he was influential throughout his career. He served as the Director of Jazz Studies at William Patterson University. He worked with a wide variety of acts including many that included musicians just starting their careers, and inspired a following among professional musicians that’s as passionate as his following among audiences.

In 2011, the Yoko Miwa Trio got to share a stage with Miller and hang out backstage with him at the Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC, which was also NPR’s Piano Jazz host and renowned pianist Marian McPartland’s 93rd birthday celebration.

Three pianists -- Larry Willis, Yoko Miwa, and Mulgrew Miller

Reflecting on that night, Yoko says, “I could tell he was he was a very gentle and sensitive guy. One of the pianists who was playing that night at Dizzy’s (a popular up and coming pianist) played a song that not only Mulgrew played on one of his well known records but also played it very much the way Mulgrew played it, arrangement and solo. I was intrigued by this since the pianist knew everyone was sitting in the green room listening, including Mulgrew. I watched Mulgrew checking out the pianist and wondered what was going through his mind. When the pianist came off stage Mulgrew said, ‘man you’re making me nervous.’”

You will be missed, ‘Grew.


Listening While You Work

May 30th, 2013

Do you listen to music in your workplace? Musicians are lucky, of course, because music is essential to the work!

The Trio Recording

Many people find that listening to music while they work, especially if they are well-acquainted with the tasks of their job, can boost concentration and decision-making. Experts attribute this to the idea that feeling stressed causes people to close off, making hasty decisions because they are easier, while feeling happy and relaxed causes people to be comfortable considering a wider range of options, explains a New York Times article. Music encourages the release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain, contributing to that happy, relaxed feeling.

Some studies have shown that music with lyrics can be distracting enough to negate the positive effects of music on concentration, but music without lyrics works fine. Some workplaces have experimented with broadcasting music throughout the working environment, perhaps to get everyone on the same groove. Of course, if you’ve worked in retail or a restaurant, you’ve probably already experienced the joys and pitfalls of having shared background music on the job. A few decades ago, wearing headphones at work would have been highly unprofessional, and indeed, older workers are still less likely to listen to music at work. Today, many managers think that allowing headphones is a great way to promote productivity without disturbing coworkers.

So, what do you think, does music help you work? Do you ever put the Yoko Miwa Trio on headphones to help you sail through the day – or do you prefer to listen only when you can give the music your full attention?


From Key to Ear

May 23rd, 2013

When Yoko strikes one of the 88 keys, a number of things happen to produce that beautiful piano sound. First, the key itself acts as a lever, connected by other levers to lift the hammer and damper. The key, the other levers, the hammer, and the damper are known together as the “action.”

The hammer, which is a small wooden core surrounded by a pad of highly compressed felt, strikes the strings. Most of the notes on the piano are actually produced by three strings together, and the hammer strikes all three. Some of the lower notes have only one or two strings. The strings for higher notes are made of steel, and those for lower notes are made of steel wrapped in copper.

The sound produced by the strings when the hammer strikes is not very loud on its own. The sound you hear from the piano is the sound the strings make reverberating through the soundboard, a large, thin board made of spruce. This functions much like the soundboard on a violin, guitar, and a variety of other string instruments – the strings are pressed down onto a bridge, which sends the reverberations through the soundboard, helping the sound to resonate and grow.

Yoko at the Piano

To a lesser extent, the sound also resonates through the piano’s frame, the metal plate on which the strings are mounted. The combined force of the strings exerts literal tons of pressure on the frame of the piano, which is why the frame is traditionally a strong plate of cast iron.

Soft felt dampers rest on the strings when they are not in use. When Yoko presses a key, the damper for those strings is raised, and when she releases it, the dampers falls back onto the string, stopping the vibrations. Although it’s less common in jazz than some other genres, the most commonly-used pedal on piano can be used to left all of the dampers at once, allowing notes to be sustained after they are played and allowing the unplayed strings to vibrate gently with those around them.

Women in Jazz, and in JAZZ

May 16th, 2013

It seems natural to follow last week’s post about Women in Jazz Day in New York and the many women in jazz festivals out there with a post on the fifth and sixth episodes of Ken Burns’ film JAZZ. For the first time in the series, these episodes give us biographies of influential women in jazz world. In fact, details about women’s lives are conspicuously absent in the first half of the series – to be sure, there were fewer women who were well-known in the early years of jazz, but the film could have explored in more depth the life of Lil Hardin, for example. Hardin, who is mentioned in a previous episode, was an accomplished jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and band leader. She also played the role of PR agent for her husband Louis Armstrong, advising him on how to dress and which jobs to take, and coordinating some of his advertising.

Episode six of JAZZ, “Swing: The Velocity of Celebration,” includes stories from the careers of singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and pianist Mary Lou Williams. Both five and six show the career of Billie Holiday, who faced poverty, abuse and neglect as a child and grew to be one of the most vocally artistic singers of jazz. The film gives a poignant treatment of Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” a somewhat graphic and incredibly moving song written by Abel Meeropol about racism and lynching.

The episode also gives a taste of the difficulties and prejudice women in jazz have faced. It quotes a piece from the jazz magazine Down Beat saying in 1938, “Why is it that outside of a few sepia females, the woman musician never was born capable of sending anyone further than the nearest exit? You can forgive them for lacking guts in their playing, but even women should be able to play with feeling and expression, and they never do it.”

We wish we could send a video of Yoko’s playing one of her own compositions, such as Wheel of Life, back in time to that Down Beat writer, but he could have also been proven wrong if he had listened to some of the great musicians of his own time!


Women in Jazz, May 10 and Beyond

May 9th, 2013

Mayor Bloomberg has declared May 10, 2013 to be “Women in Jazz Day” to celebrate the arrival of the documentary “The Girls in the Band” at the Lincoln Center.

This isn’t the first day celebrating women in jazz. Texas celebrated a one-time Women in Jazz Day on June 2, 2007, honoring the accomplishments of the Women in Jazz Association in the Austin area. There’s also a Washington Women in Jazz Festival in D.C. that celebrated its third year this March and the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival that’s been running for 18 years at the Kennedy Center. In the past, Yoko Miwa has been a featured performer at this wonderful festival.  In the other Washington there’s a Seattle Women in Jazz Festival in April, and in New York the nonprofit International Women in Jazz had a festival in April as well.

Why do women jazz musicians, in particular, need to be celebrated — other than the fact that there are so many wonderful woman jazz musicians, of course? Jazz takes talent, intellect, and gumption, things that women have always had, but historically have been discouraged from showing. Also, for most of the 19th century (when jazz began) and arguably some of the 20th, women who performed in public, whether that was music, theater, or dance, were regarded as looking for the wrong kind of attention. Even today, women are less represented in jazz than men.

From Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Billie Holiday on the vocal side to Lil Hardin and Mary Lou Williams on instruments, there have always been great women in jazz. Let’s take May 10 — and any other day you please — to celebrate the accomplishments of women jazz musicians past and present!

For those of you who missed it in 2011, here’s a video of Sheila Jordan introducing the Yoko Miwa trio’s tribute concert as a part of Women’s History Month.

Jazz Week and Photos from Regattabar!

May 2nd, 2013

Regattabar's intimate ambiance

Did you know that it’s Jazz Week in Boston? It’s a wonderful chance to hear live jazz in familiar and unfamiliar venues. Yesterday, Yoko performed solo piano at South Station. Friday night, she’ll be at Sushi Island in Wakefield. The Trio will be playing this Saturday at Les Zygomates in the Leather District.

If you can’t get enough jazz, here’s the full schedule for Jazz Week.

In other news, we got some great photos from the April 18 performance at Regattabar. Here are a few favorites.

On Stage at Regattabar

Signing a CD for a fan

Ken Burns’s Jazz Part V

April 25th, 2013

Episode five of Ken Burns’s JAZZ touches on many of the themes of the previous episode, with reminders that are particularly resonant right now: music brings people together and uplifts the spirit. Whether it was dancing to a swinging big band, or dreaming to a blues melody, Americans during the Great Depression found comfort in jazz. Also around that time, well-known jazz acts started playing on stages beyond just nightclubs and bars. Teenage fans who cherished their records flocked to these all-ages venues to see their idols live for the first time. (By the way, both Les Zygomates and Ryles Jazz Club are all ages, as well as many of the other venues the Yoko Miwa Trio plays).

Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers
This episode focuses on the 1930′s, the era of swing. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Burns’s JAZZ series is that it focuses too much on the heydays of swing and bebop, skimming over more recent decades. This episode does spend a lot of time on a short span of years, It also provides good examples of one of my own concerns with the series. While the narration and readings of primary sources give a nuanced overview of the race politics associated with jazz, many of the interviews grossly oversimplify the same issues.

Despite these concerns, I recommend episode five, because it’s one of the best yet for visuals, having advanced into an era when there is plenty of film footage available from the time. The footage of the record production process near the beginning is especially worth a view. The episode is also great for interviews with musicians still alive at the time (who have since passed), including Artie Shaw, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Dave Brubeck.

Clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw spoke to what he felt jazz means when he said of Glen Miller, “The biggest problem: his band never made a mistake. And that’s one of the things wrong, because if you don’t ever make a mistake, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability. You’re playing safely, within limits, and you know what you can do, and it sounds after a while extremely boring.”

We sincerely hope that you are all doing well after last week’s troubling events. We also want to thank everyone who came to Regattabar last week for being an amazing audience. We love you, Boston.