Although she hails from Kobe, Japan, Yoko Miwa has become a shining gem in the Boston jazz scene. With a career that’s taken several interesting twists and turns, Miwa has gained a following as well as the respect of national jazz critics as she continues playing many venues, receiving enthusiastic reviews, and inspiring young, aspiring music students. The jazz pianist has been on the move since her 1997 arrival in the Hub.
“I received a scholarship from Berklee College of Music. I took an audition when I was in Japan. I was in a school, it’s called Koyo Conservatory in my city,” she said.” I wasn’t planning to come to Boston. But I just wanted to try, I wanted to see the results, how I do. I won first prize.”
Initially uncertain about whether to uproot herself from her native country, she eventually thought that it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass on.
At Berklee, Miwa met a lot of good musicians who had come to the Boston music college from all over the world, encouraging her to study jazz more deeply, playing with a variety of professors and students every day. This was even more important to her than the theory she was learning there.
“Playing with great musicians, to me, that was the most important part,” Miwa said.
Already trained as jazz pianist in Kobe, Japan, her first teacher was television organist Minoru Ozone who inspired her at his music school, Ozone Music School, as well when she was waitressing at his jazz club.
“I could listen to him as a waitress and I could learn the songs. That was a good opportunity for me,” the jazz lady said. “Sometime, he would call me up to the stage to play. I wasn’t expecting it, but I would play with his band, and I learned a lot from him.” At the time, Miwa learned jazz by ear which likely influences her feel for groove to this day.
Eventually becoming a teacher of classical piano and jazz piano at Ozone’s school and working with his singers was another source of education for her. Yet, misfortune struck Miwa and her country. The 1995 Kobe earthquake destroyed both the Ozone Music School and Ozone’s jazz club, leaving Miwa unemployed and unable to do much of anything musically. Miwa eventually moved onto studying at Koyo Conservatory, an affiliate of Berklee, which lead to her success in the Boston jazz scene.
Miwa has eight successful albums with her Yoko Miwa Trio which she began releasing in 2000. Each album, she said, is snapshot of where she was at that time, documenting her skills as a musician, composer, and arranging.
“Each album I’m hoping I’m going to be in a better place, a better musician,” she said. “Of course, I’m not satisfied with every recording. If you are a jazz musician, you are never completely satisfied by your work, so you keep making another one.”
The critics do not seem to agree with her, as they praise every album she releases. “I’m really happy about the reviews I get,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed, and sometimes I’m surprised to get great reviews. At the same time, I know I can do better in the future.”
The title track of her latest CD, “Keep Talkin,” opens her album with a snappy boogaloo piano line that reminds of the old Blue Note Records classics. Although she didn’t necessarily aim for that style, it came out fitting the groove she was working with. “When I play that song, I see the audience, everyone is moving. I do it to see people enjoying jazz.”
Miwa’s own compositions are inspired by many different things, each one springing from a different source. She could be working on one phrase that has come to her and she’ll keep playing it until it develops into new avenues. Sometimes she’s inspired by what she is listening to that week. Other times, she will be inspired by what she is feeling during a given writing session.
“In general, writing is not easy,” she said. “Composing is not easy. I try to write as much daily as I can. Sometimes it’s a small idea, and another small idea, and I can put it together to become one song. Sometimes, I can write the whole thing really quick, zoom, zoom, zoom, and bop, I wrote the song. Those are pretty rare.”
Miwa selects material from other artist to arrange. She does not want to merely play standards, so she comes up with her own original arrangements to great songs. She has on her new Keep Talkin’ CD an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and another of Charles Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle.”
“Monk is always fun to play,” she said, “so we came up with a good arrangement. On Charles Mingus’s ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle,’ that one is hard to play on the piano because it’s played by horns, a big horn section is playing a chord. I didn’t want to play single notes. I had to think how to play that heavy song on my piano, the chords of the song.”
Her latest album also includes arrangements of The Beatles “Golden Slumbers/You Never Give Me Your Money” and Joni Mitchell’s “Conversations.” While a trio arrangement will not work for all of her favorites, the ones that can often make it onto her recordings.
“There are some songs, I can tell after a while playing it, I think I can do this one. I try with my trio, and I can tell, this is going to work.”
Miwa’s influence for jazz piano would include the obvious: Bill Evans. as evident by her own original composition “Sunset Lane.” “I try to play like Bill Evans, I try,” she said. “I like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, and McCoy Tyner. I have to study them. What makes him sound like that? That’s what I’m always looking for. How can I play like him? So, what do I have to do? What is he doing? It all comes down to voicings, phrasing. It’s amazing to analyze and transcribe everybody’s voicings and phrasing.”
Miwa’s trio is rounded out by upright bass player Will Slater and drummer Scott Goulding. Goulding she is sort of stuck with as he is also her husband of seven years. Because the trio has been playing together for a long time, they have had plenty of rehearsals and gigs to gel, become comfortable together, and to learn each other’s tendencies in a live setting.
“We can definitely work on the music together, we have acquired the feel,” she said.
In 2011 Miwa transitioned from Berklee piano student to Berklee piano instructor. Her employment there began with a phone message from the department asking her if she’d like to teach. Miwa had never even thought about applying because she didn’t think she had a chance. Her reaction was confusion. “I asked Scott, ‘Are they offering me a job and he said ‘Yeah.’”
Miwa moved from part time instructor to full time in 2015 after a long time piano professor passed away. She was selected from over 180 piano instructors from all over the world. The list she was on was whittled down to ten applicants from which she was accepted. Although she has been on the scene for many years, Miwa’s diminutive size and energetic manner make her appear to many as a much younger person. “I try not to think about it,” she said, “but sometimes people think I’m a student.”
Although she’s teaching at the college level, Miwa feels he is still a student. “That won’t change,” she said. “Musicians, I think, are constantly learning and we’re constantly developing as an artist. It won’t stop. We cannot stop learning. You are what you play so you have to be learning constantly.”
Miwa’s trio holds residency every Friday night at The Mad Monkfish on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Many of the regular patrons as well as those just coming in just off the sidewalk have become big fans of the trio. Cambridge haunt Sculler’s Jazz Club, Les Zygomates on South Street in Boston, and the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City are among the trio’s rotation venues. The live experience is important to Miwa and her trio mates.
“You can see the audience reaction,” she said, “and I can get the good energy from the audience. That changes our playing. It’s more fun to play for somebody. I also like the small intimate setting, people are so close to you that you really can see the feeling in their faces. If they’re smiling, I like to see that.”
Miwa would like to eventually take her Yoko Miwa Trio on tour to the West Coast, Europe, and Asia. They would also like to hit all of the major festivals as a goal, traveling all over the world. “I want to meet our fans through my music. That’s my dream,” Miwa said.
October 12th Yoko Miwa Trio will play the Worcester Jazz Festival location at The Pavilion @
Beer Garden On The Grid 64 Franklin Street. Worcester, Massachusetts.
November 1st Yoko Miwa Trio will play Sculler’s Jazz Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.