Primary Instrument: Piano
2011 has been pianist Yoko Miwa’s most successful year to date. She has seen her trio (Miwa--piano, Greg Loughman-- acoustic bass, Scott Goulding--drums) graduate from entry- level gigs to its current presence as a mainstay in Boston’s leading jazz clubs. In August, she was appointed Assistant Professor at Berklee College. And Live at Scullers Jazz Club, her trio’s fifth and most accomplished CD, has an October release date.
Miwa began honing her musical skills in the womb. “My Mom can sing standards in English, even though she doesn’t speak the language,” explains the native of Kobe, Japan. “She wanted one of her kids to be a pianist, and would play music every night, from before I was born. I think that’s why I have perfect pitch.” By the age of four, Miwa began playing piano by ear, with classical lessons commencing two years later, and for the next decade her focus was entirely on classical music. “I didn’t know much jazz,” she recalls, “but I began to get interested when I heard ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ in a movie. A clerk in a rental store suggested that I listen to Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and some Bud Powell, but at first they sounded too difficult for me.”
Things changed after Miwa met Minoru Ozone, a popular television organist and nightclub owner who is the father of pianist Makoto Ozone. Working weekends at the elder Ozone’s club for three years was only a part of Miwa’s invaluable tutorials. “At first he gave me a tape with a three or four minute version of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ and said ‘Learn this by ear.’ I would play two measures on the tape, rewind, and play it again. He freaked out when I came back two weeks later and not only knew the whole tune but played every note exactly as he did from start to finish, including his entire improvisation. Then he started giving me tapes with more songs on them.”
Miwa was content to work at Ozone’s club and as an accompanist and piano instructor at his music school until the great Kobe earthquake of 1995 destroyed both facilities. Then, while continuing to take private lessons from Minoru Ozone, she also pursued musical studies at the Koyo Conservatory in Kobe. The school’s president, aware of her developing jazz skills, suggested that she audition for a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “My first reaction was, ‘No way, I’m not going to America,’” Miwa recalls, “but I decided to try at the last minute and got first prize.”
One semester into her studies, a severe case of tendonitis forced Miwa to stop playing the piano for a year. “I had simply been playing too much, and it was killing me when I had to stop,” she admits, “but the year away from the piano was good in the sense that it made me think seriously about writing.” Once she was able to return to the keyboard, Miwa quickly began playing with a host of talented students and teachers, and formed a strong bond with vocal great Kevin Mahogany, who chose the pianist to serve as accompanist in his classes and on his gigs.
After graduating from Berklee, Miwa took all kinds of jobs- -“blues bands, Top 40, even reggae”--but ultimately saw the need to focus on her personal expression. “All of those gigs helped form who I am, but I had to stop in order to establish the trio.” Four discs on Japanese labels followed: In the Mist of Time, from 2000, with a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Tim Mayer; Fadeless Flower, recorded in 2002 and Loughman’s first appearance with the trio (Goulding is an original member); 2004’s Canopy of Stars; and The Day We Said Goodbye, taped live at the studios of WGBH-FM in 2006.
Berklee College of Music - Assistant Professor, Piano Department