Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Two award-winning female Japanese jazz composers, Asuka Kakitani and Noriko Ueda, have joined forces to form Sakura Jazz Orchestra. Named for Japan’s most iconic flower, the cherry blossom, Sakura Jazz Orchestra celebrates the two women’s similar histories and their unique voices in modern jazz composition.
Although they wouldn’t meet for long time, Asuka Kakitani and Noriko Ueda shared many of the same experiences while growing up. Born a few years apart, they were both raised in the Kansai area of Japan and started piano lessons at a young age. Becoming interested in jazz in their late teens, both women attended a local music college before playing professionally in Japan (Asuka as a pianist and Noriko as an acoustic bassist). Years apart from one another, they were each awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, and it was during this time that their interest in big band writing began to grow. Pursuing a major in jazz composition and studying with many of the same professors, Asuka and Noriko started to find their own compositional voice, and with distinctive influences. Asuka was influenced by the sound of modern jazz composers Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schneider as well as twentieth century classical composer Samuel Barber, whereas Noriko was more influenced by post-bop composers Thad Jones, Gil Evans, and Bob Brookmeyer. After an invaluable time in Boston, they each decided there was but one place to go.
Asuka and Noriko each coincidentally decided to move to Brooklyn, NY. They also decided at separate times to enroll in BMI’s Jazz Composers Workshop, championed by the legendary Jim McNeely and the late Manny Albam. It was at this workshop that Asuka and Noriko finally met. Asuka and Noriko were each awarded BMI’s annual Charlie Parker Composition Prize and the Manny Albam Memorial Commission for Large Ensemble at the foundation’s annual concert, and both women remain as the only Japanese composers to win the prestigious award. Their friendship blossomed at BMI, as did their appreciation of each other’s music. Noriko observes, “I think of Asuka’s music as having a certain sensitivity and warmth. She has a very interesting structure to her music and I really enjoy her development of even the most simple motifs.” Asuka reciprocates, “I hear Noriko’s music as being bright, energetic, and memorable. I love her rhythmic ideas and how she can compose using more traditional song forms and make them sound fresh and original every time.” The formation of Sakura Jazz Orchestra was their logical next step.
Asuka Kakitani (an accomplished pianist and composer) and Noriko Ueda (a successful bassist and member of Grady Tate’s band and the DIVA Jazz Orchestra) together have written over 100 compositions and arrangements for various size ensembles, including many commissioned works. Collectively, their music has been performed live throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, including the annual IAJE conferences, in the famous Blue Note and Merkin Hall in New York City, the Fairbanks Arts Festival in Alaska, as well as many performances on radio and television. Their works have been recorded by several jazz ensembles and have been included in collegiate music libraries. For Sakura Jazz Orchestra, Asuka and Noriko’s individual compositions will provide a unique compliment to each other’s in concert, and they will further collaborate by writing jazz arrangements of Japanese folk songs. With Asuka as the orchestra’s conductor and Noriko as it’s bassist, Sakura Jazz Orchestra will benefit from their collaboration and their individuality. Sakura Jazz Orchestra will surely be an orchestra to watch.
-Jim McNeely (composer/arranger/pianist for Village Vanguard Orchestra, director of BMI Jazz Workshop)