—— Can you tell me about your CD “In Tone Nation” ?
It was released in 2001 and recorded in 2000. We were ready to release it then, but things happened and that pushed everything back to the fall and then 911 happened, so things got delayed and we decided to hold off on releasing t until the following year.
It’s comprised of all my original music, most of which I composed in college. ost of the songs have Latin rhythms ... and my drummer is from Venezuela nd is a great studio musician. My percussion player is from Brazil and he’s great too. It’s probably classified as contemporary, but I’m not sure because everybody has a different idea. I don’t know if I would call it “Latin jazz”
—— How did you come up with the name of your CD?
Oh, it’s just a play on words, since the album features the Shigeru Kawaii piano. The idea behind it was that I wanted people to hear the beautiful sound of the piano. “In Tone Nation” doesn’t really have any special meaning but put it together and it sounds like a word “intonation”.
—— So how did you get started in music?
Well I started taking piano lessons when I was five. My parents were and still are serious music lovers. They weren’t classically trained, but they sing in a choir and so they always wanted their children to take music lessons. So one day I just went up to my mother and said that I wanted to take piano lessons... because all the other girls were taking piano lessons. So they found a teacher and got me started.
—— Did you love playing from the beginning?
Well I don’t remember that much what it was like. I just remember that it got boring after awhile. I was ready to quit once and my mother yelled at me! It only happened that once, but ever since I decided that I had better keep playing and not say anything... Growing up in Japan my parents didn’t really push me to become a professional, not even to go in to music conservatory r anything, but I just kept taking lessons and kept playing.
—— Was there somebody that you looked up to and wanted to be or play like?
When I was child I was just playing classical piano and so I had no concept of jazz back then. When I was young I didn’t really have any idea what this might lead to. I didn’t really have any favorite composers back then. I was just studying the usual composers that everybody else plays... like Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Chopin etc. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I accidentally found a cassette tape of my fathers... an Oscar Peterson album, Oscar Peterson is a great Canadian jazz pianist who’s been around for a long time, so I listened to the tape and then I was shocked to hear the beautiful ound of jazz. That’s when I decided that I wanted to... to perhaps play like him or learn more about this kind of music. It was kind of late but...
—— Did you study piano at any particular school in Tokyo?
No, I was just taking private lessons. I think I kept up weekly lessons and over the years I had two or three teachers, but no one who really stood out. We were just going through the motions. I think all my teachers were on the lenient side and they didn’t really push me either. So when I look back I was kind of... lost. I was just playing piano, but wasn’t really sure of my direction. My first teacher, when I was five, who was teaching both my brother and I, thought that I had talent and told my mother that I should pursue music.
—— Did you attend many performances then?
I didn’t really. I may have, but I don’t have very good memory of those things. I don’t really remember going to see anybody and being very impressed. I’m sure I went to concerts and stuff, but they didn’t stand out.
—— When was the first time that you performed?
Well my teachers they all had piano recitals for students. They weren’t huge concerts, maybe 30 students or so, so they just rented a small hall. It wasn’t so exciting, but I worked hard for it. I remember I was always good on stage, even though I was, and still am, a shy person... I didn’t have any problems performing.
—— So was discovering the Oscar Peterson tape... was it some kind of turning oint for you?
Oh yeah definitely! That’s when I wanted to play different styles. I did some research but I couldn’t find any good schools nor teachers in Tokyo. So basically hen I was living in Japan I would just sit at home and listen to the albums nd tapes over and over and over again and try to copy or transcribe what I heard by ear. So that’s how I sort of started learning jazz, but that’s all I did in Japan, because it’s difficult to get any guidance or training in jazz there.
—— Besides Oscar Peterson, who else has had an influence on you?
Well back then he was the only one and I started collecting all of his albums. He has a lot of albums out... so I just listened to all of his recordings. I’m still a big fan of Oscar Peterson’s, but another player I like is Michel Camilo. e’s not too well known, but he’s well known in the jazz-world. He’s from the Dominican Republic and is based out of New York. While Oscar Peterson is traditional, Michel Camilo is Latin jazz. Shelly Berg, my professor at USC was also a marvelous teacher. He taught me that I must have a reason to be a musician---that music wasn’t just for your own sake... it must be communicated nd enjoyed by fellow musicians and the audience.
—— How did you make your way to the United States?
That was just a lucky coincidence. When I was in high school I wanted to escape from Japan and Japanese examination hell. Through Jr. high school I was a pretty good student, but in high school I started questioning whether this studying and cramming was going to do anything for me... and I was getting a little lazy too! The teachers were so strict and I didn’t like doing it anymore, so I started thinking more about music. By chance, my father, who was working for a bank at that time, was transferred from Japan to their Los Angeles branch. I was in high school and my older brother was already in college, so he didn’t want to leave, but I decided immediately to go. I didn’t really know what to expect or what it was going to be like, but I wanted to leave.
—— What was your impression of the States?
That was back in 1985 when the Japanese economy was still good, my father had a very important position with the bank---so we had very good life in LA. When I think of it now I can see that I was in a pretty sheltered environment, iving in a big house in Hancock Park. For college my parents didn’t want me to live in a college dormitory, they wanted me be close enough to commute, so I attended the University of Southern California. I was interested in UCLA as well, but I missed their entrance deadline. My English at that time was almost non-existent, but USC’s standards aren’t as high as UCLA’s. For foreign students they actually didn’t require taking the TOEFL, they had their own standards.
—— What was your college experience like?
The first year or two I was just basically taking English classes for foreigners who couldn’t speak English very well, so I was just hanging out with those students and my English wasn’t improving so much. I wasn’t in the regular programs so I was a little bit frustrated. I’d go to school during the day and then I’d come home and speak Japanese with my parents. Even when I went to school, I didn’t really see all the different kinds of people. The thing about USC was that they have a large number of foreign students attending and they tend to just stick together. The Japanese will just hang out with Japanese... so that wasn’t helpful for me. When I finally started attending egular classes it was very difficult, but very interesting. The music department at USC was very large and I was in the Jazz, which had only 100 students so pretty much everybody knew everyone. For some reason I was the only Japanese female student. The Jazz program had a lot of people who were working musicians, mostly Caucasian ...not too many black guys, and so I was a novelty and my teachers treated me well. I worked very hard because I felt I represented the entire Japanese female population. The thing about musicians is that they don’t judge you by skin color, they judge you by the way you play, and if you don’t play well then your not worth much in their eyes. So you just have to get good. My skill level was elementary... I had the technical skills, but jazz has a whole different set of skills. Classical music you can get away with just reading and playing the notes, jazz is much more complicated.
—— What are some of the places that you like to play?
You mean the clubs? Well I’ve always like playing at Catalina ... Lunaria, I’ve always liked, and the Baked Potato is okay. The rooms are all about the same except for the Jazz Bakery, which has terrible acoustics.
—— I understand you tour Japan sometimes?
Well I haven’t been back there in awhile now. I perform more here than in Japan. It’s different playing there. The audiences are very formal, they clap a certain way and they would prefer sitting in a concert hall than sitting in a club and chatting. Playing there doesn’t affect me except that it’s a little bit more exciting when people are cheering. As long as I have good musicians, it doesn’t affect me that much.
—— How do you feel when you’re playing the piano?
When I play piano... I know that music is something that I’m good at. It’s always fun to play, so I always look forward to playing. The thing about playing lassical music is that you don’t really have to have any emotion... You’re not supposed to smile or laugh when you play and there’s no real interaction with the other players, but in jazz it’s very free and a lot of fun. Especially when you get together with good musicians that you like to play with. Piano is part of what is called the rhythm section, like the guitar, and the fun part is to create a “groove” that feels and sounds great. One of the important roles is for it to keep the rhythm, but there is still a variety of things that you can do that makes something work or not work. It’s very exciting when you find it.
—— Even though you play various styles, is jazz still your first love?
Yes! Oh Definitely! It took me around five or six years before I even felt comfortable telling people that I was a jazz musician, before that I didn’t have the confidence to say so.