Japanese audiences are renowned as some of the world’s most respectful listeners, but for musicians accustomed to getting more raucous receptions elsewhere, the experience can be a little unnerving.
When New York-based jazz composer Miho Hazama returned to her native Tokyo a few years ago to play a show in support of her debut album, “Journey to Journey,” she recalls that the crowd’s demure applause left her flummoxed.
“Clapping — that was it,” she says. “I was really freaking out: ‘My God, people don’t like my music! Did I do something wrong?’ I had to ask my manager if everything was OK or not.”
Speaking over Skype in fluent English from her home in Harlem, the 30-year-old sounds like she has fully adjusted to life in the Big Apple. Hazama moved to New York in 2010 to study jazz composition at Manhattan School of Music (MSM), after graduating with a degree in classical composition from Tokyo’s Kunitachi College of Music.
Surprisingly, she says the city itself wasn’t the principal draw: it was the opportunity to study with composer Jim McNeely, who teaches at MSM. Still, the buzzing New York jazz scene has clearly worked its charm.
“This is a great time for me to live here right now, as a young composer, so that I can get a lot of input,” she says. “I feel like that’s the advantage that I can take — going to a lot of shows, meeting a lot of people. I can just listen to a lot of kinds of music.”
While jazz clubs in Tokyo tend to wrap up at around 10 or 11 p.m., in New York she says that’s when people start heading to the next gig of the night.
“The amazing thing is that that happens every day,” she continues. “A show from 1 a.m. every day! That only happens in New York City — or New Orleans, probably.”
Both cities have been very much on Hazama’s mind recently, as she prepares to oversee a concert at Tokyo Jazz Festival celebrating the entire history of jazz. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first jazz record, released by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. (The group, consisting of five white musicians from New Orleans, had formed in Chicago but did its recording in New York.)
To mark the occasion, Tokyo Jazz tapped Hazama to direct a centennial show with the Danish Radio Big Band and a glittering cast of guests, including octogenarian saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and guitarist Lee Ritenour.
She worked with producers from the festival and the DR Big Band to devise an epoch-spanning program that ushers listeners through vintage staples like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Sing, Sing, Sing” all the way up to the present. The performance, interspersed with interludes recapping major historical events, will conclude with an original composition by Hazama, featuring keyboardist Cory Henry.
“We decided to work on historical big band scores from each jazz era, such as New Orleans, swing, bebop, cool, free jazz, fusion and now,” she says. “Basically what I’m doing is to just direct, and then make all the pieces as a coherent set — because we have to cover 100 years in 60 minutes, which is insane.”
This will be her first appearance at Tokyo Jazz, and it feels long overdue. Though she’s not exactly a household name, Hazama has become one of the most prominent Japanese jazz musicians of her generation. Last year, she was featured alongside the likes of Kamasi Washington, Cyrille Aimee and Mark Guiliana in Downbeat magazine’s “25 for the Future,” a survey of key players under the age of 40. No other Japanese musician made the cut.
Hazama grew up studying classical piano and electric organ, and nurtured ambitions as a composer from an early age. She describes how her move toward jazz was partly a reaction to the forbidding modernist compositional techniques — think atonality and serialism — that she studied as an undergrad.
After a fortuitous encounter with the university big band at a freshmen event, she embraced jazz in a major way, especially the music of contemporary composers like McNeely and Maria Schneider.
“I felt that’s a great combination of art and entertainment,” she says. “It’s complicated, and there’s a lot of concepts in the compositions — that’s true — but then it’s still very enjoyable, and sometimes easier to listen to, compared to atonal music.”
Still, Hazama’s background in classical music seeps into her jazz writing. Her 13-piece ensemble, m_unit, incorporates a string quartet alongside a more conventional lineup of horns, vibraphone and rhythm section.
The group’s two albums to date, 2012’s “Journey to Journey” and 2015’s “Time River,” pivot effortlessly between punchy big-band sections and luscious chamber jazz. Tricky rhythms and harmonies abound, but her compositions manage to wear their complexity lightly. Just as importantly, they’re a lot of fun.
She says she relies on her parents to let her know if she’s being wilfully obtuse: “My Mum is very honest in saying, ‘Oh, that’s actually really boring,’ or, like, ‘I don’t understand your music.’ ”
Hazama’s experiences in New York have done much to inform her compositions, but she says they’ve also made her aware of her limitations as a musician. She describes studying at MSM alongside the kind of student who “started playing piano with Oscar Peterson when he was 3 years old,” and feeling that her own sense of swing just couldn’t compare.
“That’s probably the main reason why I’ve kind of stopped playing jazz piano right now,” she says.
“I was born in Japan, which is like ‘1 and a 3’ count country,” she continues, clapping out a slow two-beat rhythm. “So it’s like, ‘1 and a 3 and a 1 and a 3.’ I love that kind of Japanese traditional festival music. And then, you know, my musical background is not that jazz, but more like rock and classical, so I decided to use that background as a strength — I can mix them up to create something new.”
Tokyo Jazz Festival gets a makeover
In its latest makeover, Tokyo Jazz Festival is looking to Europe for inspiration — specifically, urban festivals like Italy’s Umbria Jazz, where the city itself plays a starring role in the proceedings.
After 11 years at the imposing, impersonal Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, the event is relocating to central Shibuya, and adding a raft of public performances to its lineup. In addition to a series of gala concerts at NHK Hall, there’ll be gigs at the WWW complex, plus free concerts and parades in Yoyogi Park and the surrounding neighborhood.
Festival regulars including Chick Corea, Sadao Watanabe, Steve Gadd and Lee Ritenour are all returning, alongside innovative younger acts such as the Shai Maestro Trio and GoGo Penguin.
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