Listening to Yoko Miwa play the piano is like listening to the stars that shine at night twinkle at various decibels as they frame the celestial bodies in the evening sky with sound waves of elation and startling beauty. Yoko’s latest album Canopy of Stars, released from Polystar Jazz Library Recordings, is a kaleidoscope of gently twirling notes created by Yoko on piano and her band that consists of Scott Goulding on drums and Massimo Biolcati on bass. Born in Kobe, Japan in 1970, Yoko was tutored by Minoru Ozone, the father of prominent Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone. Yoko studied piano at the Osaka College of Music in the late ‘80s, then entered Japan’s Koyo Conservatory of Music and won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston where she graduated in 1999.
Yoko Miwa’s attachment to music is profound as she reflects, "Not to sound too spiritual, but I feel like music is the one thing in this life for me that connects me to something greater than what we see on this earth. There is a higher form of unspoken communication going on when you improvise, that I think only musicians themselves can understand. I feel fortunate and blessed to be a musician. If I didn't play piano, I wouldn't have had the chance to experience life as I have and to meet so many people from all over the world."
Yoko’s creative talents were encouraged by her mother who played music and exposed Yoko and her sister to its charms. "My mother loves music and she is an artist. I remember she was always listening to music, a lot of classical music and some jazz. She loves jazz and singers like Sinatra. Also she studied Japanese instruments - Koto and Shamisen very seriously when she was young. I think she always wanted to take piano lessons, because she didn't have a chance. My mom played Mozart or Brahms every night when my sister and I would go to bed. When I started taking piano lesson at 4 years old, she was really supportive, and still is to this day!" Yoko emphasizes. "My sister and I were always around the piano playing and singing together."
At the age of 6, Yoko was tutored by one of Japan’s most astute piano instructors Minoru Ozone. She remembers, "Each week, he played 1 or 2 tunes for me complete with melodies and improvisations. He would record the lesson and he wanted me to transcribe his playing, I listened to the recordings all day through the week and would play his solos in the next lesson. He was impressed with my accuracy. Since I have perfect pitch, transcribing just comes naturally to me, but the hard part for me was the memorization. I learned so many tunes this way, though at the time, I didn't know anything about jazz harmonic theory, but this process was great and was a real influence on my playing and life. I believe if I didn't meet Minoru, I wouldn't be where I am right now."
She also has Minoru to thank for opening her up to composing original material at an early age as she addresses, "Minoru Ozone decided to feature me in a recital at his music school. I wanted to play a song of my own so that's how I got started writing."
It was an exciting time for Yoko who describes her most memorable experience as, "It was my first recital at age 7. I still remember my teacher gave me one song for the recital, but I learned it quickly and I asked her for one more song. I didn't have any problem on the stage. They recorded it and made an LP Record. Recently my mom played it for me and I was amazed myself. It was good for 7 years old!"
She recounts about her formative years in music, "I was in the choir from 4th to 6th grade in school, but when I decided to go to music college I had to take serious voice lessons singing Classical, Opera and etc. Actually I liked it. I had to take voice classes while in college and I took a Koto class since my mom has that beautiful instrument at home. I had to take another instrument too, so I picked clarinet because I played it in junior high school and because I already owned one. It wasn't really for me. I had been accompanying the singers of the choir since I was in the elementary school. I liked accompanying singers at college too. It's something I feel I do well. I still like accompanying singers!"
After high school, Yoko attended the Osaka College of Music, which proved to be a challenge but also a good experience that allowed her to dig deeper into her artistic talents. "I had been playing classical music since the age of 4, and my goal was always to go to a music college. It's really hard to get into a music college in Japan. I had to study with two piano teachers and one vocal/ear training teacher from the college for 3 years before entering the college. I had to practice 5 hours a day. It was always competitive, even before and more so after getting into the college. I worked very hard. I think it was a great experience, which definitely helped me later in my music career."
She remarks about those days, "I made friends with some teachers I still keep in touch with. I also made some good musician friends but not really any mentors besides Minoru Ozone. Of course, I also studied briefly with his son Makoto who was an influence on me too."
She shares about her early musical influences, "I was and am still inspired by Keith Jarrett. His original compositions have always spoken to me. I am a big Bill Evans fan so I have always been inspired by the standards, which he played. Standards which he was influenced to play from his association with Miles Davis."
Her life took an important turn when she was matriculated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I heard about Berklee but never thought I would come to the U.S. to study jazz. Every year, Berklee professors travel all over the world to do scholarship auditions for Berklee, I had no intention of getting in or really going. I just wanted to see how I would do. To my surprise, the result was I won the 1st prize! Then I started thinking I can't waste this opportunity. Definitely coming to Berklee changed my life."
While at Berklee, Yoko admits that she not only learned about music in school but also through live concerts performed by her professors and local musicians. "I saw some teachers and local musicians gigs. I would go to shows at the Regatta Bar and Scullers. I went to Wally's sometimes. I saw a rare appearance of Japanese pop artist Akiko Yano at Johnny D's."
Yoko learned early on that being passionate about playing music comes with a price. "While at Berklee, I played so much I developed tendinitis. I had to take a break from some of the performance classes and focus more on Jazz composition classes, which ended up becoming my Major. Composing original music is the best way for me to express what is in my heart. I sit at the piano and play for a while until I find some line or theme I like that speaks to me, then I develop it from there. Sometimes I'm inspired by other musicians compositions too."
Her debut album In The Mist of Time which was released in 2001, were samplings of her work in college as she expresses, "Most of those songs I wrote while I was at Berklee. Some of them were written for class, but I arranged for trio or quartet for the album. One of the songs I wrote in Japan, before I came to Boston but arranged it differently for this album. My songs are always a reflection of how I am feeling or what I am going through. These songs represent that period of my life. I've changed a lot since then. Some of those songs I still play on occasion, but some of them I haven't played at all since then. I was just planning to make a demo CD when I was recording this music, but when I brought them to Japan, The major record label Tokuma wanted to release it."
She asserts, "I've had to work very hard for any success that I've achieved, most of my recognition has come from building my name myself and the reputation of my trio and our music. I was however fortunate to be Kevin Mahogany's pianist while he lived in Boston. I've also had the opportunity to play with jazz legends such as Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Arturo Sandoval, Jerry Bergonzi, and George Garzone, but I'm still waiting for a big break!"
Her sophomore offering Fadeless Flower, which came out in 2003, opened her up to a collaborative way of songwriting. "I always try to be open minded," she evaluates. "I write the songs, but I listen closely to the other musicians input. What their idea is and what are the possibilities. We kind of create together. There is always something you want to try differently or you'll hear something other than [what] you are thinking from the written music. The music on ‘Fadeless Flower’ was mostly the result of a regular gig [that] I had with my trio 3 nights a week in Boston, which lasted 3 years! We constantly had to come up with a lot of new material. I was kind of forced to write a lot. It was a very prolific time!"
For her third and latest solo album Canopy of Stars, she conveys that with jazz artists, writing music is a process that can go on infinitely. "Most jazz musicians are never satisfied. By the time you reach what you thought was your goal, you've proportionately pushed that goal further away. I live in a nice part of the city and I have a lot of nature around my place. I think these surroundings inspired the music on Canopy of Stars. It's also a little more moody."
The song "Waltz for Willy" from Canopy of Stars is a special tune dedicated to a special someone. "Willy is the name of my friend's dog who died around the time I was writing songs for Canopy of Stars. He was the resident dog at what is known to Boston jazz musicians as ‘The Jazz Institute’ run by saxophonist Joel Press. He has a session everyday. Willy attended most of the time. He loved music and I wanted to dedicate this song to him."
For the recording of Canopy of Stars, she reveals about the gear used, "I was and still am pretty old school. I still use pencil and paper. I used a mini disc recorder then, and have now graduated to an mp3 recorder. That's my biggest technological advance."
Yoko Miwa believes that jazz music is a field that keeps some tentacles in the past while stretching itself into the modern age. She relates, "I heard someone say when it comes to jazz, you can't only play the leaves of the tree, you have to play the roots too. Jazz is an ongoing evolution, in order to understand where we are going you have to know where we came from. I have studied the masters extensively myself. I think that it is evident in any modern jazz musicians who are respected. Something new grows out of the same medium that's been inspiring jazz musicians for years. I heard a story from an old musician that said they had to wait to hear what Charlie Parker’s new record [sounded like] to know what they were going to play! No matter how far we go, it always traces back to those legends, they were operating at such a level of perfection that almost nobody has been able to recreate."
Using an internal Geiger counter to measure her own improvisations, Yoko Miwa’s sense of spontaneity is evident in her warm-ups, as well, before a show. "Usually, I don't have time to warm up before the show but if I do, I simply warm up playing some scales and arpeggios. I don't make set lists when I play. My trio has a huge repertoire of songs to draw from. We've been playing a long time and this helps [to] keep things interesting for the audience and ourselves. There are so many tunes in our book [that] there is not enough time to practice all of them. I think I end up practicing everything through the course of the year though. I once saw Herbie Hancock playing scales and arpeggios in front of the audience for 15 minutes before the show started at the Blue Note in Japan!"
She advises to those who are aspiring musicians, "Listening to music is just as important as practicing, especially to live music. You can learn and benefit from anyone you see. Don't only go to the shows of famous musicians or what everybody else is listening to. Form your own opinions and follow your heart!"
Yoko Miwa is a pianist with the best of both worlds, having perfect pitch when she replicates others works and indulging in her own music ideas. Though her latest album Canopy of Stars is the third in her series of solo albums, there are many more layers to her creativity provoking even deeper excavations, and Yoko seems to look forward to the opportunities to go in deeper.