Jazz Notes: Maestro Composer/Arranger Miho Hazama Leads Her Superb m_unit Ensemble in a Wonderland of Energetic Jazz
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, January 10, 2017
When Miho Hazama headlined Jazz Standard on September 30, 2015 in celebration of her spirited second album, Time River, her authentic music and graceful poise as the conductor of her 13-piece chamber band called m_unit proved to be the proclaiming of an engaging new voice on New York’s jazz scene. As such, the award-winning composer and arranger who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in Harlem represents the energetic next generation of the large ensemble leaders, ably joining the continuum of such established orchestra leaders as Maria Schneider and Ryan Truesdell.
In fact, Schneider in many ways has served as a mentor. “Maria has helped me a lot, including helping me to get my first dream show at Jazz Standard,” says the 30-year-old Hazama who graduated with a Masters in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music in 2012 studying with the influential Jim McNeely after previously earning her Bachelor in Classical Composition from Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo in 2009. “I heard Maria’s music for the first time when I played in a big band in Tokyo. Later I met her at MSM where she taught a master class, then later I interviewed her for a Japanese jazz magazine. I gave her my first CD [2013’s Journey to Journey] and she loved it. Since then, she has supported and encouraged me.”
While her Jazz Standard date was a thrill, Hazama’s bigger dream show in New York was to be showcased at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s classy club Dizzy’s. As a result of meeting the nightspot’s bookers and passing along her recorded music, she scored a gig there (January 25) with m_unit, which this year will include saxophonist Steve Wilson, who had been a guest on Journey to Journey. “I get my inspiration as a composer from people who are in my band,” she says. “So I’m writing a piece for Steve to solo on. I’m dedicating it to him. I love his timbre and originality on the saxophone.”
Hazama’s music is complex, teeming with unexpected twists and jolting turns as well as pockets of frenzy that lead into wonder. Case in point: the opening tune of Time River, the uplifting “The Urban Legend.” It has an element of swing in 5/16 time but also features horns darting over lush strings, a scampering rhythm that leads to a rolling piano solo and a tenor saxophone sprint before the band returns to the tune’s catchy motif that appears, disappears and reappears throughout the song. “The inspiration for this comes from the music I compose when I travel,” Hazama says.
The music at Dizzy’s will included tunes from her past two albums, including “Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower,” which, she says, has nothing to do with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, but seems appropriate for the date. She’s also working on three new compositions, two of which she will debut at the show. “Writing a composition for 13 people takes a long time,” she says, talking about her upcoming show in a conversation at Lincoln Center’s Atrium three weeks before the big date. “When I compose on the piano, I hear a lot of improvisation in my head, musical ideas that take a long time to get from my brain to my hands. It’s part of the reason why I’m not focusing as much as I should on my piano playing. Right now with m_unit, it’s about composing, arranging and leading the orchestra.”
Hazama has been garnering impressive stature as a remarkable composer. In 2011 she received an ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award, and in 2014 she garnered the Japanese 24th Annual Idemitsu Award, the first time a jazz composer has won the prestigious prize. In 2015 she was awarded the 16th Annual Charlie Parker Jazz Competition Prize for her work “Somnambulant,” and last year she was also acknowledged by DownBeat as one of “25 for the Future.”
Starting to play the piano when she was 5, Hazama grew up in a household rich in music. “My parents listened to a lot of classical, but they also loved all genres,” she says. “They were into rock, disco, Japanese pop, and they also loved jazz. When I was 8 and learning piano through the Yamaha Method, I had a composition teacher who told me this is what you have to do, and he played a 10-minute improvisation.” That planted the seed for jazz even though she continued to study classical music.
When she joined in with her undergrad college big band on piano, Hazama experienced jazz in the midst of the contemporary classical and rock music it was playing. But she didn’t fully plunge into jazz until she came to New York—not focusing on being a pianist but as a composer. “My composition process starts on the acoustic piano and I tried out some of my early pieces in a jazz trio,” she says. “But I chose to be a composer because I was interested in geometry and logical concepts I could explore.”
Even so, in delving into math-inspired jazz, Hazama concluded that her music needed a more soulful depth. “The first time I showed some of my earlier music to my mother, she was shocked,” she says. “She didn’t understand it. That’s when I realized that I have to keep in mind that I want to entertain as well as be an artist. So, I began to express things emotionally, and instead of focusing on harmony only, I needed to keep melody in mind to make my music memorable to the listener.”
As revealed in her Standard show, Hazama exuded confidence—so much so that she doesn’t shy away from asking marquee artists to guest on her recordings. For Journey to Journey, she enlisted Wilson and vibraphone ace Stefon Harris. For Time River, she sent email requests to sax titan Joshua Redman and accordionist/arranger Gil Goldstein—both musical heroes. “I just emailed Joshua,” she says. ”I had never met him, but he emailed me back and said he wasn’t sure. I had already completed the tune I wanted him to play on, so I sent him the score and a demo. He replied right back and said, ‘This is beautiful and challenging.’” Indeed Redman’s buoyant and bold voice uplifts the gentle-to-riveting title track.
Hazama’s musical introduction to Goldstein came from his producing and arranging Michael Brecker’s 2003 Quindectet recording Wide Angles, one of her favorite albums. While she was working as an arranger/orchestrator with Ryuichi Sakamoto, she discovered that he had worked with Goldstein and knew him well. So she emailed him and sent him a copy of her first album. He replied that it was great and that he was now a fan. He sent her a link to a YouTube song he performed on which reminded her of a song, the emotive “Under The Same Moon,” that she had written when she was 20 but never recorded. “It’s one of my favorites that I had written for a quintet, so I rewrote it so that Gil could play it with m_unit,” she says.
“Miho wants to make her big band not sound like a big band,” he said. “She brings the aesthetic and sensibility from Mike’s work to herself, and she’s special in how she knows how to compose the licks and nuances. She does what all grown-up composers do: express a distinctive idea and develop and unfold it. It’s that unfolding that makes her part of that young generation of artists that are wiser than their years. A lot of jazz musicians are interested in covering old territory, but she’s someone who’s taking the development of jazz a step further into the future. She’s so gifted, she could write a piece for 12 accordions and it would sound great.”
While Hazama composed eight of the nine pieces on Time River, like with Journey to Journey, she covered a pop tune arranged in her distinctive voice. For the latter, it was a hip take on Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” Then she wanted to close Time River with something that originated in classical or church or rock or maybe even metal. She opted for the heavy stuff by turning the alternative metal band A Perfect Circle’s gripping tune about a stripper, “Magdalena,” into a wildly hook-laden, swinging take with sirens of horns and an exciting jump-for-joy ending.
“I liked that band when I was in high school,” she says. “I came across the song again when I listened to a tape I had a long time ago that my parents kept in a box of my stuff and hadn’t thrown away. Almost all the songs on my album are in a minor key, so I wanted to end in a major key and have lots of bright colors. I wanted to make a closer, like a bonus track. So this is perfect. It’s the happiest song ever!”
For her Dizzy’s date, she’s taking a pass on performing those tunes so that she can focus the show on her originals.
Meanwhile Hazama has upped the ante as a vital young artist who is delivering a singular style of music steeped in a variety of idioms. Not to be too fenced in by her large ensemble, Hazama has also broadened horizons, performing with other musicians in creative endeavors. She’s presently working on a commissioned composition for New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder for a performance with a big band at Symphony Space, March 17-18. “I’m really excited about this,” Hazama says. “I used to take ballet classes when I was younger, so this is another dream—to write a piece for ballet and conduct the band.”
Recently she stretched in another direction: performing on piano a collective project with Argentina-born bandoneon player and composer J.P. Jofre that featured String Quartet from the New Asia Chamber Music Society. At Joe’s Pub on January 2, this unique ensemble of artists performed distinctive originals and compositions/arrangements inspired by jazz, tango and classical. Hazama says that this was fully collaborative. “We wrote a lot of new compositions,” she says. “Some I would start and he would finish, some he started and I finished. We had been playing together as a duo but wanted to collaborate with strings too, to make them more a part of developing the music.” Last year Hazama and Jofre performed some of their works in a sold-out show in Japan using a local classical string quartet.
An added benefit for this project was that it gave Hazama the opportunity to play the piano and improvise more. “I love playing the piano,” she says. “I have a classical music background and working with J.P. brought me back to that because most of his music was written out fully, while mine was written out but also included room for improvisation. With m_unit, I don’t get a chance to do that because I’m conducting.”
So that focus on piano will be a part of her future, Hazama says. In fact, she says she really owes it to her piano mentor in Japan, renowned free jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita who formed a well-regarded trio with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan akLaff that played regularly from 1988-2001 at the now defunct New York club Sweet Basil. He also toured as an opening act in 2006 for Ornette Coleman and even sat in with him for tunes. “I’ve known Yosuke for a long time, and he’s been a special personal friend who’s always been helpful and supportive,” says Hazama. “My career as an orchestrator started when he asked me to orchestrate one of his piano concerto pieces [2008’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 Explorer”]. Yosuke is an encourager, but he’s always asking me when I’m going to be playing more piano. So, I need to get back to that, and I would love to record in a few years a solo piano album that I will dedicate to him.”