Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Great Tribute...and a Great Night: The Yoko Miwa Trio

I wasn't planning on going to the Yoko Miwa concert that would mark March as Women's History Month, paying tribute to the great jazz vocalist, Sheila Jordan.  But it was destiny---I stopped working at my computer and listened to her music and her story as WICN's Joe Zupan interviewed her.  As I listened to  one of her songs, I thought, "This is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been."  So I changed my mind and went. 

Once everyone had found a seat in the packed Regatta Bar, we were treated to an introduction by the diva herself, Ms. Jordan, coming to us via flat screen TV, adding that she was "thrilled to be talking to us and honored" to be the subject of this tribute. The two women are clearly members of the "mutual admiration society."  After looking around at the crowd of fans that had come to hear this talented pianist, Miwa started by talking most affectionately about Jordan.  Throughout the concert, she paused to share story after story about Jordan, including a suggestion that the two may be collaborating at some point in the future..

The first song opened up with a hauntingly beautiful voice piped in through the speakers, soon joined by Miwa on the piano in perfect harmony. Soon, the band is in full swing right out of the gate, on the first song.  Pretty impressive.

This petite, pretty Japanese woman looked so delicate as she entered the room and speaks so softly when she shares her stories, smiling demurely.  But when she sits down at the piano, you realize she is no pushover.  Her strength and agility pour through every song. She has full command of the instrument and her passion for playing is not hidden.

Miwa shared her inspiration for one of my favorites songs, Sorrow-full Moon. In Japan, she tells us, when you see a big, beautiful full moon, rather than seeing "the man in the moon," they see "two bunny rabbits with hammers, making moshi." (everyone laughs). On one day, however, this moon looked to her like a very sad moon and became the inspiration for this haunting melody.  Maybe I detected a little nostalgia for the home that she'd left 30 years ago. 

The audience was engaged and relieved to love this musician whose charming manner gave her an instant connection with the audience.  At one point, she stopped mid-song to confirm with the audience that the Brazilian song she was playing, Qua Qua Qua translated to  "The Sound of Laughter." (One bold man confirmed this).  Miwa also paid homage to several other female musicians as she played Dancing in the DarkGirl Talk and other jazz standards.

The acoustic bass, played by Greg Loughman and the drums, played by Scott Goulding, nicely complimented Miwa's energetic and passionate piano style and it's no surprise.  This talented trio have played together for 10 years, an anomoly for a band, any band.

So that is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been. For those of us "first-timers" hearing this piano virtuoso, I'm sure we'd all agree: It's such a pleasure when you go to a concert not exactly knowing what to expect and you get an expereince that just leaves you saying "wow."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joel LaRue Smith Trio: Thank You, Saint Agnes!

Five pm is a strange time for a concert but I wanted to hear this band since I liked the CD and I liked the artist.  When I arrived, a woman said "I hope it's not just us."  I remember what my musician sister once said to me and I repeated it to the woman:  "If they don't get a crowd, it's a paid rehersal for them" and its a private concert for us. Still, it's so much better for performer and audience both when there is a supportive crowd environment.  And by the time the Joel LaRue Smith trio started playing there was a crowd---and an energetic one at that.

The venue was in the campus center lecture hall, complete with tiered seating and computer outlets at nearly every seat.  Joel LaRue Smith sat at the beautiful grand piano with Fernando Huergo on bass and Tiago Michelin on drums. They were ready to play.  The audience was ready to respond.

This was the first jazz performance in this room, named after its benefactor, Dr. Agnes Varis, sometimes referred to as "Saint Agnes Varis."  In response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina's displacement of over 1000 musicians and destruction of their homes and their instruments, Varis set up a fund giving these musicians numerous opportnities to play.  A long time benefactor of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, her gift to the school resulted in what is now called the Varis Lecture Hall within the Campus Center, the location of this concert.  And Smith is here to "break in" the jazz in this lovely performance setting.

The buildup of the first song, Narrow Escape, (an original by Smith), is punctuated with a cymbal flying through the air and landing, miraculously, on beat. And somehow, this little distraction works and although the music had everyone's attention, we are now are rivoted. The band exchanges smiles amongst themselves and moves on.

During all this, I find myself caught up in the nonverbal communication among the musicians. Smith signals the drummer "Get ready to go," shaking his head up and down as he stares intently at the drummer.  Later on, he signals that it's time to close out the solo by showing three, then two then one finger.  All this while following charts and playing.  There's the "Nice going" signal of a quick smile and head shaking up and down but my favorite is the "Awesome!" signal---an even bigger smile and more head shaking. Its the "we-really-struggled-with-that-rif-during rehearsal-and-we-just NAILED IT!" signal.

Another Smith tune, El Mensajero, (The Messenger) the title derived from the the Jazz Messengers, is an upbeat and complicated rhumba with lots of "twists and turns" as Smith puts it.  He teases the audience with a threat of a "hum the tune" test afterwards. I'm glad he was only kidding.  I would have failed.

One of my favorites is a Thelonius Monk song, Straight, No Chaser, that he dedicates to his father, introducing it with "I promised my father I would play a blues." I loved it.  As they continue to move through a wonderful selection of Afro-Cuban originals and arrangements of songs by celebrated jazz greats, my foot is tapping and I know I have come to the right place.   What a great way to warm up a chilly grey afternoon. 

For more information on the band, Smith's music, or to purchase a CD, go to