Considering the joy she gets from performing and the thrill fans get while listening, it’s hard to imagine that Yoko Miwa wasn’t raised on jazz music. Just the opposite is true. From the age of four, Miwa was training to become a classical pianist. Fifteen years later, fate intervened while she was in college in Japan and she heard a jazz version of the classic standard, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
“I was in love,” Miwa said, remembering the first time the jazz bug bit her. “I could hear the freedom of expression in the music and it spoke to my soul. I knew immediately that it was a style of music I had to learn to play.”
Like a lot of musicians who feel inspired by the sound of jazz music, Miwa soon learned that while you can play the notes that make up the song, you can’t really learn to play jazz.
“I started taking lessons from Minoru Ozone, who is the father of pianist Makoto Ozone,” she explained. “Every lesson, he would play a song for me and then have me learn it the exact way he played it. He didn’t give me the sheet music; he made me listen to him play the song and then learn it by ear.”
Blessed with perfect pitch, Miwa was able to recreate the songs Ozone played for her. However, her rigid, classical training made her want to learn more about the theory of jazz music and the technical demands of playing it. Such things would come, her teacher told her, but only after she learned to play her own interpretations of the songs she was leaning at each lesson.
“I had to learn how to swing and it was such a liberating feeling,” Miwa said. “Through the years of studying classical music, I learned so much about playing the piano; now I was able to use those skills to find my musical voice.”
In the years that followed, Miwa has recorded several critically and commercially successful albums and traveled the world playing jazz to her ever-growing fanbase. Her latest album, Pathways, is her first new studio recording in five years.
“There wasn’t a master plan. We’ve been playing a lot of live shows and it just seemed the right time to go into the studio and record something,” she said.
The ‘we’ she is referring to is her band that performs on the Pathways album—The Yoko Miwa Trio—which includes Miwa on piano, Will Slater on bass (with Brad Barrett stepping in for one track), and Scott Goulding on drums.
“The best thing about playing together so much is that we didn’t have to do a lot of rehearsing in the studio. We just went in there and played, which gives the music a great live sound.”
The Yoko Miwa Trio celebrate the release of Pathways, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 19 at The Regattabar in Cambridge. Tickets are $25, $20 for students. For information call 617-395-7757.