Yoko Miwa Finds Focus Amid Pandemic

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Yoko Miwa recorded her trio album Songs Of Joy during the pandemic.

(Photo: Chris Lee)

What Yoko Miwa has gone through during the coronavirus pandemic will sound familiar to a lot of other working musicians: gigs canceled, recording sessions postponed, recitals livestreamed, lessons remote. For the Boston-based pianist, the stress was compounded by tragedy: the illness and death of her father in Japan, at a time when she was unable to be with her family.

Remarkably, Miwa emerged from those first months of the pandemic with a new recording by her trio, her ninth, which, given the circumstances is remarkably upbeat and affirmative, living up to the album’s title, Songs Of Joy (Ubuntu Music). It wasn’t easy.

For starters, the band, which was accustomed to playing at least twice weekly at residencies in the Boston area, went into the studio cold, after four months apart, for a date that ended up including five new originals by the bandleader. And, of course, there were the necessary protocols for collaborating during a pandemic.

“I was really nervous for two weeks before,” Miwa said. “Would we be safe?” Will Slater, the band’s longtime bassist, now living in New York, usually would stay at the home of Miwa and her husband, the trio’s drummer, Scott Goulding. This time, they booked Slater a hotel room for the day of rehearsal and three days of recording, in July.

“We brought hand sanitizer, and extra masks for everybody,” Miwa recalled. “[Typically,] when we perform, we like to be as close as possible.” But under these circumstances, the players had to set up as far apart from one another as they could.

But there’s no sound of strain on Songs Of Joy, which kicks off with a roaring, Tyner-esque version of Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” inspired by that singer-songwriter’s iconic performance at Woodstock. Miwa’s taste for unlikely covers of ’60s and ’70s pop also comes through in her reflective take on the Anne Bredon tune popularized by Led Zeppelin, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (with bassist Brad Barrett in place of Slater) and on Billy Preston’s “Song Of Joy,” which Sheila Jordan introduced to her at one of the legendary singer’s annual gigs with the Miwa trio in Cambridge.

To stay focused during the pandemic, Miwa gave herself the assignment of writing a tune every day, running them by Goulding for feedback. Those sessions produced the hard-bop swing of “Small Talk,” the Latin rhythms of “The Rainbirds” (inspired by Kenny Barron), the hooky melodic riff of “Largo Desolato,” and the Bill Evans-like impressionism of “Inside A Dream.”

Miwa describes her process as driven by mood and emotion. She wrote the pensive “The Lonely Hours”—with its delicate, upper-register opening pizzicato solo by Slater—in full awareness of her father’s deteriorating health. “I sat down and played, and it just came up from me,” Miwa explained.

In addition to writing every day during the first months of the pandemic, Miwa livestreamed Facebook performances every Friday and Saturday, drawing some interesting audiences. “I’d be looking at the comments,” recalled Goulding, who acted as cameraman, “and I’d say, ‘Yoko, George Cables is watching now. ... Kenny Barron is watching now.’”

As an associate professor at Berklee College of Music, Miwa has been teaching remotely, with individual students connecting from their homes around the world. “I actually enjoyed it,” she said. “I set up two cameras, so students could see my hands on the keyboard, and I sent them recordings after the lesson. ... And students would sometimes walk around their house with the camera. I’d see their families, and they’d show me their pets. It’s kind of fun.”

Still the fallout from the pandemic has been rough. Miwa saw numerous gigs postponed or canceled, including a show at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center and a performance at the Ella Fitzgerald Competition at the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. Plus, the home of one of Miwa’s regular weekly gigs, Boston’s Les Zygomates bistro, has closed permanently.

All the more reason Miwa was glad to get into a recording studio: “I was so happy to be playing with my trio again. Even though I was very nervous about the situation, at the same time, the joy, the happiness came from our music.” DB



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June 2021
Vijay Iyer
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