Last March, Miho Hazama took the stage at The Jazz Gallery with her group “m_unit” to celebrate the US release of her debut Journey to Journey (Sunnyside). Since then, the album has received numerous accolades among critics including positions on The 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll and Downbeat’s Best New Albums of 2013. This Friday, January 24th, 2014, Miho returns to Gallery with m_unit and special guest Steve Wilson with some new material in store. Miho was kind enough to sit down with us recently and discuss her recent projects.
The Jazz Gallery: This past March you celebrated the release of “Journey to Journey” in the US at The Jazz Gallery. Since then the record has won a lot of praise among critics. What have you been up to since then?
Miho Hazama: Since the CD release, I haven’t been working as much on m_unit but rather other compositions and arrangements – partly for financial reasons. M_unit is a project that I really want to continue and evolve but its not yet financially viable on its own. I really want to put together another recording, maybe in a year so, so I’m trying to get finances in order for that project—with a 13 piece band there is a lot that goes into making that type of record. For the most part, I’ve stayed in New York City and written a lot of arrangements for both Japanese and local clients. I feel like I’m ready to be back writing for my own project and getting excited to move on to the next album in a year or so.
TJG: Have you had time to work some of your own compositional projects as well?
MH: I participated in the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop beginning this past September as it’s been challenging for me to write for big band—it’s not my strength. I used to study classical music, used to write a lot of symphonic music. When I started out at the Manhattan School of Music, I was still writing for string quartets and have had to transition into writing for woodwinds or horns. I’ve learned a lot since then—like how to use overtones more effectively or how to be simpler in my approach. While my compositions are still complex, I try to simplify as much as possible to make it more memorable for the listener. It’s always important that my melody line be really emotional, as if for a singer.
TJG: Are there any particular experiences that have influenced your approach to composition?
MH: Everything goes into my compositions—every experience. This past fall, I went to Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin by myself. I walked around, tried a lot of different beers, and enjoyed the time to myself that was much needed. I’m not sure that these types of experiences directly influence my compositions but certainly on the subconscious level. My time at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop definitely shaped my approach—having the opportunity to work with so many other composers like Mike Holober and Jim McNeely—they’re all really talented and energetic. That was a great experience for me.
TJG: What is your writing process like?
MH: I usually keep everything in my mind. I try to remember lines that I will use at a later period. I might also record it on my phone. Once I organize these ideas, then I can see which ones might be applicable for certain pieces I’m working on. I really need an acoustic piano first—otherwise I can’t really do anything.
TJG: What is your relationship to the musicians in m_unit? How did you go about choosing them for this particular group?
MH: Half of the band members are from Manhattan School of Music—my former classmates. I’ve been playing with them for years and just love their timbre, their tone colors, and their technique. I’m familiar with their playing and personalities—their personalities illustrate their timbre and musical aesthetic and…well… I just love them! So there are some core members in the band that I’ve always been working with. I try to compose with them in mind.
TJG: What are your goals for this group?
MH: Primarily to achieve recognition as a group, not just for my own compositional work. Take for example the Maria Schneider Orchestra. They lost Laurie Fink this past year and that had a huge effect on the band because she meant so much to them. I think they had been working together for 20 years—it’s just fantastic, like a dream to me. I really want to work with musicians that I trust for a long time, hopefully forever. I want to keep writing for them, working with them, and having a fun time with them.
TJG: Tell me about your different roles as a composer, arranger, performer, and conductor – where do you feel most at home?
MH: Composing. Actually, I’ve been trying to uncover what that “home” is for myself for a long time. You know, I started learning electric organ, piano and composition back in Japan, then went on to study classical composition at Kunitachi College of Music, and then on to New York for jazz composition. I used to play both classical and jazz piano but I quit playing here because I realized that it wasn’t my strength. It’s been an interesting journey trying to find my strong point as a musician. I’ve come to realize that I’m most excited by composition in the sense that one has to start from zero. If I’m arranging, I’m working with something that someone else has already composed, that’s also challenging for me, but I particularly like starting from zero. Sometimes I have to struggle but the rewards are great.
TJG: Considering your studies and professional career thus far, what experiences have been the most challenging or valuable for you?
MH: As an arranger, I had a great time participating in the Metropole Orkest Arranger’s Workshop with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. I worked with a singer named Roberta Gambarini. I orchestrated for her and the Metropole Orchestra with Vince Mendoza conducting. We talked a lot about the challenge of bringing something new to an arrangement without compromising the composition—ultimately you always have bring something original as an arranger. That was a very pivotal week for me.
As a composer, I’d have to say the first lesson with Jim McNeely at Manhattan School of Music was very eye opening because, at the time, I was really new to jazz and thought it was rather easy going, that you could compose whatever you wanted. I remember bringing something to Jim and him challenging me on the meaning of every note, form, harmony etc. I had learned the same thing in classical composition—that every aspect of the music should mean something. Since then, I’ve tried to approach composition with that in mind. I think about this a lot as I’m trying to be both an artist and an entertainer.
TJG: As a musician, having spent considerable time in Tokyo, the Netherlands, US (including NYC) among other places—have these locales had an effect on your musical approach or musical spirit?
MH: Coming to New York City has forced me to think a lot about my identity. Being from Japan and struggling as a musician here has led me to think more about my role as a Japanese musician. While I don’t want to be too traditional or conservative, I do embody a spirit that is distinctly Japanese. For example, I can’t be too “swingy”—I don’t have that sense to be honest and I don’t have some of the talents that jazz musicians need. But I think having classical, jazz, and Japanese identities positions me as a unique voice. I never thought about that when I was in Japan but with so many people from all over the world here in New York City, you craft new identities. The richer my understanding of myself becomes, the more it translates into my compositions.
Miho Hazama m_unit featuring special guest Steve Wilson plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday January 24th, at 9 and 11 p.m. The group features Miho Hazama as conductor, Cam Collins, Lucas Pino, and Andrew Gutauskas on woodwinds, Matthew Jodrell on trumpet, Bert Hill on french horn, Sara Caswell on violin 1, Tomoko Omura on violin 2, Celia Hatton on viola, Maria Jeffers on cello, James Shipp on vibraphone, Alex Brown on piano, Sam Anning on bass, Jake Goldbas on drums, and Steve Wilson on saxophones. $20 general admission ($10 for members). Purchase tickets here.