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From L to R: Sean Rickman, Miles Okazaki, Craig Taborn, and Anthony Tidd. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, May 24, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Miles Okazaki and his band Trickster back to our stage. The band has a strong history at the Gallery, as it was where they first performed and workshopped the material, as well as celebrated their record release in April 2017. In an interview with Jazz Speaks before the record release concert, Okazaki described the album’s composition’s unique qualities:

Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. There’s one tune on there called “The Calendar,” which pairs a three-note voicing concept and a rhythm concept I’ve been working on for at least ten years. The whole tune is really only four bars long, it just has certain rules about how the harmonies change. Nobody would know this from listening to the tune, it’s a pretty simple tune [laughs].

For this Friday’s performance at the Gallery, Okazaki will be joined by bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, with pianist Matt Mitchell filling in for Craig Taborn. Before coming out to hear the band at the Gallery, check out the aforementioned tune, “The Calendar,” in the video below.


Photo courtesy of Miles Okazaki.

Guitarist Miles Okazaki, is coming off the release of an extremely ambitious Thelonious Monk solo guitar album which includes all 70 of the composer’s works (the first of its kind). The six-album opus, aptly entitled Work (the title of one of Monk’s trickier tunes), has been sending a wave throughout the jazz community, including a lengthy feature e in The New York Times.

Okazaki has been an extremely active member of the jazz community in New York and worldwide for the last 20 years. At the Jazz Gallery in particular, has presented his own groups alongside working as a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Jonathon Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, as well as with Patrick Cornelius, Mary Halvorson, and others—forging a wise and soulful sound, always pushing the concepts of jazz rhythm and composition in new directions.

We spoke to Miles over the phone—amidst a very busy day of rehearsing and other work—to discuss his Monk album and his approach to the upcoming show this Friday at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Congrats on your recent Monk album Work, which we are excited to celebrate at the Gallery this coming Friday. What did your day look like today, in terms of “Work”?

Miles Okazaki: Thanks! Yeah, been busy: travel yesterday; took the two kids to school early this morning; rehearsal in 45 minutes, so packing it in today; gig tomorrow and then another gig!

TJG: Your Monk solo guitar project is made up of 6 albums. How do you plan on presenting that at the Gallery with drummer Damien Reid?

MO: Yeah, it’s 6 albums or 70 tracks total. we’re gonna play Monk compositions, now— I’ll tell you, there are no arrangements on the album really, it’s just improvisations pretty much, certain approaches in form. It may be totally different, but the main thing is that the approach to the Monk music on the album is rhythmically based, so I figured with drums it might emphasize that. Damion is someone I’ve played with for a long time and we have a certain way of playing duo so I thought that would be cool for the Gallery

TJG: How did you first discover Monk’s music and what were your first impressions?

MO: I didn’t see Monk live, so it was through records… records in my house, in particular, one where he’s playing “‘Round Midnight”—a long version where he’s working it out—he’s sort of practicing—it was on some sort of compilation… and then there was the record Misterioso, the one at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin. I really like the live records and what he was doing rhythmically—the rhythmic things were the things that grabbed me.  I didn’t understand the harmonics at that point— at twelve or thirteen years old—but I could get into the rhythm and the phrasing and things like that, even tunes like “Straight No Chaser” where the phrase is moving around on the beat and things like that. I just loved that feeling of being confused [laughs].

TJG: How do you adapt Monk’s music for the guitar? Is that hard?

MO: If you wanna play anybody’s music, you have to play it on your instrument, so if I play Bach I play on guitar even though he didn’t write it on guitar or Coltrane I play guitar so I didn’t have any choice to adapt for guitar. I’ve been playing Monk’s music for a long time, for thirty years or so, one of the reasons why—his voicings and language—works well on the guitar is that it’s quite open in terms of voicings and things like that. Even complex harmonic compositions like “Crepescule with Nellie” and things like that which are very specific with voicings—you can get most of them on the guitar because of the way he plays. It’s quite different from someone like Herbie Hancock or Bill Evans or someone where the voicings are very close. Guitar players are in general attracted to Monk’s music in terms of playing it accurately for that reason. A lot of the songs had technical challenges with a lot of choices, because you only have one hand!

TJG: What was your practice and process for getting all the music together? How did you get them under your fingers? Was there a regimen or a timeline?

MO: Just one step at a time; one tune at a time, and finish a tune and go to the list and go to the one I wanted to do next and do the harder ones first, as well as the ones I didn’t know, and  just practice, practice, and if I didn’t know it, I had to memorize it. I had to go listen to the recording and figure it out, you know, and figure out a way to play it in a way that seemed to be as accurate as I could be, and then figure out a way to practice it until it became something that wasn’t just copying, until it had some kind of meaning or feeling, and then, you know, somehow, make it different from all the other ones that have already been recorded which became more and more difficult as I recorded more and more stuff, so I was like now what, i can’t do another thing in this technical approach. so the technical challenge was really extreme—probably the most extreme technical challenge I’ve put for myself on the guitar. I don’t really usually do that, I’m usually more about being in an ensemble and having all the parts go together, you know, which is not—technically—that intense, it’s more about how you’re hearing and more about musicianship on the level of interaction, I have to imagine the group! (laughs)


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, March 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes guitarist Miles Okazaki and his Trickster project back to our stage for two sets. The project began as a book of tunes premiered and honed at the Gallery in 2016, and came out on record last year to much acclaim, appearing on several “Best of” lists. Before Trickster’s return to the Gallery this week, we caught up with Okazaki to talk about how the music has continued to develop over time, and the notion of ideas versus information in a piece of art.

TJG: You first presented this music a little over two years ago. Has anything about it changed in that time?

Miles Okazaki: Well, everything changes, because people change, and they forget some things. And I forget things, or I change them, and things become less interesting. But that’s part of what this record was about. Not worrying about what you forget. I didn’t use any sheet music, for example. I’ll just play whatever I remember from what I wrote. And that’s what I’ll do this week, I guess [laughs]. I’ll just do whatever I can remember. I’m trying to remember but I’m not going to go look at the sheet music. Cause this particular set of music is an embodied type of feeling. I want it to be like that, like stories—I remember this story from my childhood, or from my relatives. Something about that has a meaning to me that’s internal.

I deal a lot with sheet music, and a lot of quite structured and determined things, and I’ve done a lot of things like that. My previous records are quite meticulous, and so I’m trying to let go of some of that, you might say. These are just little spaces, so you can just remember what that space feels like and go back into it.

TJG: You make a lot of allusions to mathematical forms—like in The Calender, with the inclusion of ratios of celestial movements—but on the top, the music has this very buoyant and tuneful quality. When you write, do these two things happen at the same time? Do you lead with a snippet of melodic content, or do you first sit down with a concept and develop some kind of systematic way of thinking?

MO: That tune was actually written on an airplane… all it is is just some notes moving, and some rhythms, and then a shape that it goes through. So yeah, you can say mathematical, but I never use that word to describe music. There’s no mathematical operations happening.

I mean, if you’re saying concerned with numbers, and you say that’s mathematical—well, you can say that’s numerical, but I’m not saying, “this multiplied by this, the square root of something.” I’m not doing any of those type of operations. Anything that you want to want talk about with pitches and discrete numbers of things, you can say is mathematical, you can enumerate them. And a calendar, and all these things things that we use—it’s a natural thing for humans to try to make order out of things. And for them to make order out of things, they make things like calendars. Something is repeating, there’s a cycle. It’s something that we a call a year. How long is it? We want to know how many days, why isn’t it this many days, how can we organize it in some kind of a way?

So, yeah, those are structures. But they’re largely metaphors for how we think and put order into things that are disorderly. Like pitches and rhythms—they’re organized. People are always looking for a dialectic, or a binary type of things. There’s something that’s soulful, and something that’s mathematical, and these things are sort of opposed somehow—and I think that’s all bullshit.

That being said, yeah, there are some structures involved and there are some hidden things, but I prefer to let them remain hidden. It’s more about how it feels. I do, personally, get very interested in music theory and stuff like that, but nobody in this particular band cares about what theory is behind it, at all. They just wanna play, so I have to make things playable and easy to memorize.


Album art courtesy of Pi Recordings.

Miles Okazaki seems to have a lot of concerns: Straying away from predictability, diving into new ways of interpreting material, parsing out intervals and rhythms to the smallest detail. But at the core of his music, Okazaki seeks what all musicians seek—to collectively breathe life into musical ideas. When it comes to Okazaki’s sound, nothing is predictable and nothing is certain.

Continuing in his mode of deep inquiry and total immersion, Okazaki infused his newest album with concepts of physical tactility, astrological motion, and sonic disruption. In celebration of the release of Trickster (Pi Recordings), Okazaki will bring Craig Taborn, Anthony Tidd, and Sean Rickman to the Gallery to breathe life into the ‘seeds and cells’ of the project’s compositional material. And, in the spirit of Okazaki’s creative process, we spoke in depth about the project, from the broad strokes to the minutiae.

The Jazz Gallery: In the Trickster trailer, you mentioned that “With these types of musicians, it’s a waste of their abilities for me to be trying to have too much control. These are small ideas that can open up some space for us to do something.” Did you begin this musical approach before the “Trickster” project?

Miles Okazaki: It has primarily evolved out of the process of becoming a better editor of my own material. If I write a certain amount of material, can I cut out nine-tenths of it and still get at the main idea? I try to find a good thing, then use it. Generally, the smaller the seed, the more flexible and mobile it can be, especially if you’re dealing with the types of musicians who can realize the implications and possibilities of that seed.

TJG: So what does that editing process look like, whether on the guitar, on staff paper, on the computer?

MO: Some on guitar, but on this record, I wanted a tactile element to it, wanted to see how these things would feel on the instrument. So I wrote the drum parts by sitting at the drums, the bass and guitar parts at the guitar, the piano parts at the piano. That’s an editing process in itself, because I don’t play any of those instruments very well, including the guitar [laughs]. The editing process for this record was that I’d sit down and ask, “What do I remember from last time I explored this material?” Whatever I remembered, I figured that was the good thing, and the rest I’d just let go.

TJG: Was this approach in response to a way of making music that wasn’t really working for you?

MO: I’ve been moving toward something like this, trusting my intuition and judgement about the material. Not to be overly precious, not to hold on just because I spent a long time figuring something out. Some of these tunes are the results of years of work on certain concepts, but they shouldn’t exist just because I spent a long time on them. It’s not like playing poker and being ‘pot committed,’ where you just have to keep betting. Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. Like the cliche of the sand castle that gets washed away, and you just see the general shape where the strongest parts remain. Memory is like that too. You remember the most important things, and some of the details disappear over time. You slowly build a personal story as some things stand out and other things fade.


Miles Okazaki & Paul Cornish. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Miles Okazaki & Paul Cornish. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, June 2nd, The Jazz Gallery kicks off the next round of our Mentorship Series with guitarist Miles Okazaki working with pianist Paul Cornish. While some of our previous mentees had played on the Gallery stage previously, Cornish is a new member of the extended Gallery family. Cornish hails from Houston, Texas and attended the prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts there (like fellow pianists Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Helen Sung). He just finished his second year studying jazz at the University of Southern California and has already been decorated with awards from ASCAP, Yamaha, and the Next Generation Jazz Festival. The tracks on Cornish’s SoundCloud page show an immense talent, poised to break out to a wider audience.

Before Cornish arrives in New York to make his Gallery debut, we caught up with Miles Okazaki to talk about his project with Paul and what he’s learned about band-leading from working with Steve Coleman.

The Jazz Gallery: How did you and Paul meet?

Miles Okazaki: Not many people know Paul because he’s never been to New York. Well maybe he’s passed through, but he’s never really checked out New York. This will be an interesting experience for him because of that, and because the music that we’re doing isn’t the most conventional.

I was teaching at the Banff Institute in Canada last summer, and Paul was in my ensemble. He was obviously very advanced, very talented. He was always hanging out, playing at the jam sessions. But he’s also a little shy, so I don’t know him that well on a personal level, I just know how he plays. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be 19 or 20 and come to New York and play with some older musicians or more experienced musicians and just have that kind of mind-blown thing. What we’re doing is providing a framework for Paul to live in New York for a month, so he can go out and explore and get on the scene a little bit.

I feel like this kind of situation is more authentic and less theoretical than just working in a classroom setting. Like, do you want to have a doctor who’s studied all the books and knows everything, or someone who has done ten thousand hours of surgery and never cracked open a book? Not that this is one way or the other, but this is just a jumpstart on some playing experience.

TJG: It’s almost as if Paul is a sort of jazz exchange student and you are part of his host family.

MO: Yeah. It is true that he’s coming here without really knowing anyone else.

TJG: Earlier you mentioned that the music that you’ll be working on with Paul isn’t the most conventional. How so?

MO: We’re going to be playing music from a record that I recorded recently that isn’t out yet, with Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. It’s a new book of material that I’m trying out and before this, the only person who’s played it is Craig Taborn. I gave Paul the tapes and said, “Just check out Craig Taborn.” I think that will be a good lesson by itself! Paul’s just going to jump right into the fire with us, but it’s a supportive project. Sometimes people can have bad experiences when they just jump into situations, when the other band members can be like, “Hey man. Just get it together!” That can be a good thing too, but we’re not going to be trying to do that here. It’s more like we’re just on a gig and trying to make all this music happen together.