Born: August 9 Primary Instrument: Violin
All About Jazz called her “the queen of chamber jazz,” violin virtuoso Meg Okura has found the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble in 2006. Juilliard trained concert violinist, the composer and jazz violinist has revolutionized the world of chamber jazz by entwining her artful pieces with inspirations from various cultures and countries to create a purely enchanting experience.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, the multi-faceted artist cultivated her adoration for music at the Toho Gakuen School of Music at the young age of five. Talented and determined, Meg’s artistic ability later led to her position as concertmaster and soloist of Asian Youth Orchestra, and eventually her brilliant United States debut with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in her teenage years. She furthered her education at the Julliard School, earning both bachelors and masters degree in the study of classical violin. Soon, persuaded by her Juilliard professors’ belief in her exceptional talent in composition and improvisation, Meg began to pursue a transition from the classical violin to something even more electrifyingjazz.
Studying jazz harmony and improvisation, Meg dedicated herself to mastering the tradition of jazz while “learning on the gig”, working in variety of situations from Dixieland orchestra to downtown music scene to Cuban band. With her switch of genres and evolution into what she explains as “a more complete musician”, Meg began to advance her career as a jazz violinist. Touring with jazz masters such Michael Brecker, Steve Swallow, and Tom Harrell, and recording with Dianne Reeves, Lee Konitz, and Sam Newsome, Meg has performed at prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Lincoln Center, and London’s Barbican Centre. Her versatility had also led to collaborating and performed with Oscar nominee actor and Columbia recording artist Terrence Howard numerous times in her hometown of New York, as well as been featured in three Cirque du Soleil shows.
In 2005, however, Meg embarked on a journey unlike one she had ever endured, challenging herself as both a violinist and composer, and starting her own group. Inspired by her experience in the various countries in Asia, Meg composed and recorded a compilation of music that would soon lead to the birth of her latest project, the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. The works she composed comprised the seven-person ensemble’s self-titled debut album, which won the group notoriety as a finalist for “Best Album” in the 2006 Independent Musicians Awards, and have made the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble the rare gem of the jazz world. “Composing is the most natural thing for me to doit’s as though music just comes to me. Sometimes I can be composing complicated music in my dreams and thanks to my perfect pitch, I can hear music in my head and know exactly what notes I am hearing and can write them down,” says Meg. The ensemble, which “mixes a classically trained mastery of strings, piano and drums with (a) quick-witted compositional twist” (Down Beat Magazine, Jennifer Odell), played to sold-out concerts in Japan in 2008 and has also performed at the NYC Winter Jazz Festival, Knitting Factory, and the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center.
Now, Meg’s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble presents their second album, “Naima”, named as a tribute to jazz icon John Coltrane, highlighting Meg’s unique new arrangement of the classic.
“The first album was the music that came naturally to me without any objective. This album is deliberately…more Asian, more jazz, and more chamber music. Touring Asia as a teen was really a life-changing experience, making music with musicians representing nine different Asian countries, working closely and traveling together. I draw upon my memories of Asia and try to access my feelings toward the people, the culture, and the nature and sceneries of Asia (for inspiration),” Meg says.
Featuring rare instruments the Shinobue (Japanese bamboo flute) and erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin), which Meg plays in addition to the violin, the album is a “collection of original works that represent and symbolize the name of (the) group.” The ensemble “…elegantly intertwine(s) elements of classical, jazz and world folk into a new sound…by presenting precisely played ethnically inspired original compositions in an exciting modern jazz context” (All About Jazz, Elliot Simon). This unique approach to music has earned her numerous grants and awards as a composer, making her to be one of today’s leading voices in the world chamber jazz.
Yet, Meg also offers two familiar tunes including the title cut “Naima.” “The modal quality of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ echoes with the music of French Impressionist period,” she says. In this unique new version, she creates fluidity in texture and colors by writing arpeggios moving towards different directions while slowly shifting the chords to encompass stillness within movements. “It’s a French Impressionist violin concerto meets modern Jazz with a hint of Japanese mode”, Meg says. “Carpice”, on the other hand, is a Latin jazz piece based on a theme from the famous Caprice No. 24 by the Italian composer and violinist, Nicolo Paganini, featuring virtuosic cadenzas by Meg Okura herself as well as pianist Mamiko Kitaura.
The album ends with a 25-minute through-composed suite entitled “Lu Chai”--music inspired by a poem of the same title by Wang Wei, a great poet from the Chinese Tang Dynasty. “To play chamber jazz, most, if not all of the players in the group must be jazz improvisers,” Meg says. The suite showcases various improvised solos including Meg’s erhu solo, a cello solo, as well as a flute solo by the veteran jazz player, Anne Drummond. “I like having freedom within a structure. Having improvisations keeps the work fresh, and most importantly, it makes the musicians happy.”
Today, Meg resides in New York City with her husband, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, and says she is living her life, fulfilling her dreams and relishing every day in new understandings and identity.
“I take to heart the new challenges of being a composer, jazz violinist, Asian American, artist and wife, while at the same time, constantly reminding myself of the responsibility to do my absolute best to achieve foremost excellence in the arts...”
“Ms. Okura’s vibrant, Eastern-influenced, jazzy score and the playing of her musicians were the most sophisticated parts of the work” (Roslyn Sulcas)
All About Jazz
“…chamber jazz has found its queen in Meg Okura.” (Dan Bilawsky)
“…a stunning improvisation on top of an impressionistic backdrop.” (Bill Milkowski)
“Naima is the magnificent new release from violin virtuoso Meg Okura and the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. Captivating, exciting and refreshing are just one way to describe the track offerings that are featured. Aptly named after one of John Coltrane’s famous compositions, Naima is marvelously diverse mixing the past, present and future.” (Esther Cailens)
Sea of Tranquility
“Okura has made a bold statement with Naima, ensuring her place among the top names playing chamber jazz.” (Jon Neudorf)
“A confident collection of chamber jazz that is wide in scope and deep in feeling…features outstanding solos by Okura.” “Meg Okura offers a clear sense of vision of her world of music. Okura's Naima goes to many places, speaks in many voices, and is often rich with surprises and admirable in its aspirations.” (Mark Hayes)
New York Times
“…(Meg Okura ) is equally comfortable playing classical chamber music, rock and everything in between.” (Stephen Holden)
All About Jazz
“… (some of) the best jazz New York has to offer.” (Elliot Simon)
Down Beat Magazine
... mixes a classically trained mastery of strings, piano and drums with quick-witted compositional twist performed with high energy. (Jennifer Odell)
New York Sun
“The group delivers exactly what its name promises… the group found a common ground in '60s-style modality, occasionally reminiscent of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner's Eastern explorations.” (Will Friedwald)
All About Jazz
“…elegantly intertwine(s) elements of classical, jazz and world folk into a new sound…by presenting precisely played ethnically inspired original compositions in an exciting modern jazz context.” (Elliot Simon)
New York, NY
Willing to teach:
Advanced students only.
Meg Okura has conducted clinics and lecture concert programs for the past three years, creating unforgettable memories for over 10,000 students of all ages across the United States.
“Jazz Violin and Improvisation Workshop”
A program for students of all levels to learn the secrets of improvisation. The program will de-mystify the process of improvising by showing the basic methods for improvising, while students having a ton of fun. The program includes brief demonstrations of various styles of improvisation. Students will discover new possibilities for expressing their creativities in music and joy of playing their instruments, while opening their minds to diversity in music and culture.
Private Lessons in Jazz Violin and Improvisation
For advanced young students and college students, and professional violinists/violists only. Lessons could be given through Long Island University for college credits.
For college credits, please contact L.I.U. Music Department Chairman, Bob Aquino at 718-488-1051
For all of the other inquiries, please contact Meg Okura directly at 917-449-5073.