It’s believed that time spent living abroad can be a journey of self-discovery, and for Miho Hazama that has certainly been the case. Moving to New York to study for a master’s degree in jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) was an experience that led to the recording of her debut, “Journey to Journey” — a refreshingly original album of orchestral jazz, that stood out as one of the most notable releases in Japan last autumn.

Speaking of her time in New York, Hazama says “It was definitely a great experience in terms of finding myself in a lot of ways. Not only as a composer, but also as a person from a classical music background, as a Japanese woman, and so on.

“Before I studied abroad, I was struggling to find my own voice, something that truly said, ‘This is me,’ ” she continues. “But after I started my MSM life, a lot of friends and teachers told me that my compositions were unique and interesting, and they encouraged me to keep going. Eventually, I got to the point where I decided that I wanted my music to be heard by a wider audience.”

However, it wasn’t always clear that this would be the path that she would end up taking. Despite listening to a variety of music when growing up, from the age of 13 she threw her energy into classical music. She then went on to study classical composition at Kunitachi College of Music. And it was at college that she got drawn to jazz.

“When I was a freshman, I just happened to catch a concert by the college big band. To be honest, before that day I wasn’t even aware that the college had a big band,” she recalls. “Anyway, I thought they sounded really cool and that I might be able to experience something exciting in the band. So, I started playing piano with them, and through that I got to know the music of Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober — all of whom have become big musical influences for me. From that point on, I became more and more interested in jazz composition.”

Hazama, who sees herself principally as a composer and arranger, doesn’t see this shift of musical attention as a massive change. “To be honest I don’t really like categorizing music,” she says, “and these days it’s not uncommon to see jazz artists incorporating elements of R&B or contemporary classical music in their music. Personally, the composition process is pretty much the same for me regardless of the style — I just need some kind of concept, plan or structure in my mind before I start writing.”

With orchestral arrangements using both strings and horns present throughout the album, it’s clear that Hazama’s earlier studies have had some influence on this recording. “Since I used to study classical music, I love writing for symphony orchestras,” she explains. “I couldn’t help but hear strings in my mind when I was composing these tunes, so I ended up choosing this kind of instrumentation. I would like to keep working on this instrumentation for a while, and I hope to get more chances to work with orchestras.”

There is also a lot of New York in the album, too, with plenty of swinging contemporary original compositions, as well as a bold new arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” For Hazama, it seems that her experience in New York has been an important one musically.

“I feel that people are very interested in listening to music in general in New York, and it’s also one of the most important cities in the history of jazz,” she says. “So many people enjoy jazz music every night there, which made me feel like jazz exists more naturally in the United States.”

“Sadly, in Japan, I feel like jazz is sometimes viewed as being elitist or high-brow. Either that or it’s seen as a bit too bohemian. In New York, however, the scene is open to both devoted fans of the genre and visitors.”

The notion of self-discovery is a strong theme on the album, too, with track titles such as “Believing in Myself” and “What Will You See When You Turn The Next Corner?” in addition to the title track.

” ‘Journey to Journey’ is pretty much an album that allows me to introduce myself,” says Hazama. “I was very honored to have been able to work with such great musicians, directors and engineers. As a composer and arranger, I feel that the players had such a vital role, as they are the ones who brought the music I imagined to life.”

From recording in New York to a critically acclaimed album release in Japan, Hazama’s journey as a recording artist has started strong. With a North American and European release penciled in for this spring, it looks as though the immediate future will bring further exciting installments in her musical odyssey.

Miho Hazama and m_unit play Sweet Basil in Roppongi, Tokyo, on Jan. 31 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥5,000; 030-5474-1395). For more information, visit stb139.co.jp or www.jamrice.co.jp/miho.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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