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In Conversations – Words and Verses with Yoko Miwa

Photo by Caroline Alden

Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers, photo by Caroline Alden.

It was love at first sight for Yoko Miwa with the piano, she was four years old and she has not stopped playing ever since. Just like some of her original compositions with lyrical titles, the opulent and simmering piano sound like poetry – poignant, contemplative, peaceful, captivating, always melodic and sophisticated.

Yoko spoke fondly about her mother and her unwavering support through her passage in music, “I think I took over the love of music from my mom. I feel so fortunate having her as one of my biggest supporters in life. My mom bought a piano for me to practice on when she realized how much I was passionate about playing. I was playing nonstop – I would play anything I heard or saw without knowing the notes and carrying on with a perfect pitch. I just really loved playing the piano, I still love it!”

A very young Yoko on piano.

Courtesy of the artist.

Classically trained, Yoko was from Kobe, Japan. She recalls herself not being a fan of learning to read notes, “I could already play everything I heard or saw and thought learning to read notes was hard and monotonous. Her very first jazz influence was the song ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ by Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach from a movie; then it was followed by a trip to the record store and buying and listening to records from Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock.

When Yoko was still attending a classical music school, Osaka College of Music, her interest grew in pursuing jazz. With her mother’s help, she found a teacher; a popular Japanese television organist and nightclub owner, Minoru Ozone, who is the father of distinct pianist Makoto Ozone. Yoko worked at Minoru Ozone’s club and his music school until 1995 when both facilities were destroyed from the great Kobe earthquake. Yoko began learning everything by ear and observing her teacher from the way of his phrasing, swing, timing, and improvisation. Gradually Yoko memorized the phrases from her teacher, transcribing into notes, to completing with her own melodies and improvisations.

Her music life would take an important and unexpected turn – when Yoko was studying Japan’s Koyo Conservatory of Music, her teacher Minoru Ozone encouraged her to compete in a scholarship audition for Berklee College of Music. Yoko was not so sure since she was not planning to come to America; however, she won first place for the competition and a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Yoko’s family cheered her on.


Yoko Miwa Trio at The Regattabar. Photo by Caroline Alden

Yoko remembered the culture shock she experienced when she first arrived to America. She spoke and understood very little English and stayed with a kind local host family. She couldn’t understand why Berklee had placed her in a language school for three full months; after all, she came to America to learn and play the piano. She missed everyone back home, most of all, she missed playing the piano. The host family saw her frustration and stepped in to help. They were able to persuade Berklee to allow Yoko to enter Berklee while learning English. Yoko remains grateful till this day for their support. Yoko’s dedication to music and education showcased through her progress at Berklee. She established herself as a confident pianist and composer; in addition, she had performed and recorded with Kevin Mahogany, Slide Hampton, Arturo Sandoval, Sheila Jordon, Esperanza Spalding, George Garzone, Jon Faddis, Jerry Bergonzi, Terri Lynne Carrington, Sheila Jordan, John Lockwood, Jonathan Blake, Joe Hunt, John Lockwood, Rebecca Parris, and many others. Yoko was honored as a featured performer in Washington D.C. at The Kennedy Center’s “Mary Lou William’s Women in Jazz Festival” in May 2001.

When talking about her inspirations, Yoko said she listens to a wide range of music, not only jazz. “There’s so much out there to explore, just when you think you’ve heard everything you hear something new as if it was there waiting for you to find it. I’m influenced by anything that touches me regardless of the style. As long as the musicians are playing with heart and having fun, it comes through in the music. That’s what influences me and what I strive for.” You can certainly hear and witness the influence from Yoko’s music with Bill Evens, Keith Jarrett, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Fat Waller, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Mulgrew Miller, Erroll Garner, Benny Green, Bill Charlap and others; Yoko swings elegantly from both sides and plays the entire piano.

Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers jazz Club, photo by Caroline Alden.

When describing her music style, Yoko said: “Of course I say my music is jazz but that’s not specific enough these days, I think one thing that makes me different than a lot of jazz musicians is the eclectic range of styles and influences I draw from. A lot of jazz musicians define themselves as straight ahead, be-bop, modern, bluesy, modal, or Latin. And feel like they aren’t being themselves if they stray outside. For me it’s the opposite, I have to play all the styles that fit under the jazz umbrella in order to truly express who I am as a musician.” Some of her tracks/CDs have these poetic tiles: In the Mist of Time, Wheel of Life, Silent Promise, Fadeless Flower, and Canopy of Stars. When speaking of compositions and the tile of her albums, Yoko had these words – “Composing original music is the best way for me to express what is in my heart. 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. When I compose I have an image in my mind, this is what helps the song to write itself. Coming up with the proper words for a title to describe that image is always hard. All the album titles you mentioned are also title tracks on the CDs and all the music on those 3 CDs were my original compositions. Each album has a different mood, it defines who I was at that time and how I was feeling. Usually, one of the songs on the album stood out as the best expression of that mood so I would useit for the title.”

Yoko chatted about she misses everyone back home and hopes to tour again soon in Japan; nonetheless, her full time teaching and busy schedule keeps her in the US for the time being. She said while she doesn’t compose to keep certain audience preference in mind; she keeps her music in a thoughtful flow with the surroundings and audiences in heart during performances. “I’m not a fan of planning what songs I will play either, I like to first see who my audience is and what they are responding to. For example, I’ve played jazz arrangements of traditional Japanese songs, especially when we’ve toured in Japan. In that situation, I play with more of a Japanese sensibility and use the Japanese scale but I don’t try to incorporate that when I compose my own songs. Japan has their own version of every style of music, even their own jazz…but I don’t sound anything like that either. I think because the real feeling of jazz is here in the US.”

Yoko now teaches full time at Berklee College of Music; she emphasizes on the art of listening and improvising through her teaching. She encourages her students to be more than prepared while studying at Berklee; so that they can be focused on communicating and interacting with the other musicians. “Especially if you’re going to learn jazz, I suggest spending time learning by ear. That’s what I know worked for me. There are countless books you can buy on theory, technique, and approach but it won’t help to make you a better musician if you only understand all these things theoretically and you can’t actually hear them. The masters of this music left their legacy in the melodies they composed and the solos they took, everything is there for us and there is nothing else to do but to listen and learn what they played to serve as a foundation for what will eventually become your own unique vocabulary.”

Yoko Miwa Trio at Blue Note Jazz Club.

Yoko Miwa Trio at Blue Note Jazz Club.

Most of the teaching Yoko does at Berklee is one-on-one private piano lessons. The pace of her schooling is based on the enthusiasm for learning from her students. “If a student is motivated that just allows me to move at a faster pace, covering more topics and giving them more work. I try to motivate a student by giving them just slightly more than they can handle and if they seem fine then I give them even more. I’m extremely lucky to have such talented and motivated piano students because I don’t know how to motivate someone who isn’t already.”  Yoko has her concerns also: “The biggest trial facing music students at Berklee is that they have so many things to do in such a limited time; if they try give equal attention to every topic then they will never truly master anything – it’s unrealistic to think you’re going to master something in four years time anyway. The level of students at Berklee are so high now, it’s more of a networking environment for the top musicians of tomorrow and that can be overwhelming for some students.”

Yoko’s remarks reminded me an insightful quote from the late pianist Mulgrew Miller regarding the state of jazz as he witnessed it: “I maintain that jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressiveness to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they DON’T include that in their expression.”

Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers; with Yoko Miwa on piano, Will Slate on accustic bass, and Scott Goulding on drums. Photo by Caroline Alden.

Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers; with Yoko Miwa on piano, Will Slater on accustic bass, and Scott Goulding on drums. Photo by Caroline Alden.

In one of her interviews, Yoko once related she not only learned about music in schools, but also through listening closely to the legendary jazz musicians from the past, observing live concerts by others local musicians and though her own performances with her trio. She related in these verses, “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!” she also believed that “You can’t only play jazz just to touch the leaves of the tree, you have to play to reach 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 hard of the jazz 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. 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.” Her students should definitely take these telling words to heart from their professor.

Yoko Miwa recording at WGBH studio. Photo by Takehiko Tokiwa.

Since arriving in America in 1997, Yoko had her debut album In The Mist of Time which was released in 2000, her sophomore submission Fadeless Flower 2002,  Canopy of Stars on 2004, The Day We Said Goodbye(recorded live at WGBH on 2006; Live at Scullers on 2011; and Act Naturally on 2012. The Yoko Miwa Trio is with Yoko Miwa on piano, Will Slater on acoustic bass, and Scott Goulding on drums. The trio has performed live in the WGBH studio on ”Eric in the Evening” and The Philadelphia Museum of Art, featured on the NPR Show “Jazz After Hours”, played in jazz clubs including Blue Note in New York; Ryles, The Regattabar, Scullers Jazz Club in Boston and jazz festivals around. Yoko works hard and she is looking ahead, “I’ve got a lot of original compositions that I’m ready to record, plus some other ideas I want to document. I’ve been on a mission for a while to find a record label that will support and distribute my music, I’m also hoping to get on the roster of a talent agency to book me and the Yoko Miwa Trio nationally and internationally. I love Boston, it’s my home but I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can go here musically. I want to play more in New York and around the US. I want to tour Europe, play in jazz festivals. I feel like I’ve already achieved my dream, I have a lot of fans that believe in me and like what I do. I just want to reach an even wider audience.”


Yoko Miwa Trio at Scullers jazz Club. Photo by Caroline Alden.

Yoko Miwa’s passion for music is vibrant and you can sense the deep connections, from where she was from to where she stands now – finest from both world apart. As she has made America her home, she now speaks jazz as her first music language. The reflection of her devotions are in her arresting melodies, through her creative talents, balanced growths and innovations.

“No matter where your interest lies, you will not be able to accomplish anything unless you bring your deepest devotion to it.”
―Matsuo Bashō

Yoko expressed her passion for music in one of the interviews: “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 Miwa Trio has a show coming up at The Regattabar on May 15, 2015; you can also follow her gigs regularly around Boston.

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