INNER VOICES The classically trained Yoko Miwa recognized a musical soulmate in Bill Evans.
When she was a 16-year-old piano student in her hometown of Kobe, Japan, Yoko Miwa decided it was time to see if she had what it takes. She was considering the classical conservatory, but, as was routine in Japan, she decided to consult a music professor to see if it was worth her continued study. The answer was, "Yes, you will be accepted." Miwa, after all, was a prodigy with perfect pitch who was already playing the virtuoso repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. But there was a caveat. "Your technique is all wrong," she was told.
So, for a year, Miwa did nothing but practice scales and arpeggios. Slowly. Softly. Relearning her technique. Up and down the keyboard. Practicing crossing thumb under index finger as she moved up and down so that each note registered evenly, from strong finger to weak. "It was so boring!" Miwa says when we speak at a Somerville coffeehouse. "We had an upright piano, and I'd bang my head against it." But she ended up at Koyo Conservatory in Kobe, apparently bound for a career as a classical concert pianist.
Until one day at the movies — she can no longer remember the singer or the film — she heard a jazz rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." She wanted to check out jazz. A clerk at a Kobe music-rental shop suggested Herbie Hancock and Bud Powell, but she found them overwhelming. Still, interested in studying jazz, she got a job as a waitress at a club owned by the jazz organist Minoru Ozone — who also happened to be the father of jazz star Makoto Ozone. Ozone senior gave her a piece — "Tenderly" — and told her to learn it by ear. Two weeks later, she came back with the whole piece memorized, improvisations and all.
"I knew all the notes," she tells me. "But I still had to learn how to swing."
Swinging is no longer an issue, as is evident from Miwa's latest album, her fifth, the self-released Live at Scullers Jazz Club, which she'll celebrate with her trio at that club on November 17. Miwa's jazz lineage is clear. "Bill Evans is my hero," she says — she immediately recognized a fellow classical player in Evans's voicings. But she's equally drawn to the driving swing of Oscar Peterson.
You can hear the latter on Live in the funk of her piece "B.G.," a tribute to pianist Benny Green and, by extension, Peterson, who was Green's mentor. Here and on the Art Farmer blues "Mox Nix," she shows her feel for hard-bop-like linear drive, colored with churchy tremolos and forthright block chords.
Miwa came to Berklee as a scholarship student in 1997, quickly fell into all kinds of side-person jobs — blues, Top-40, reggae. When she decided to focus on her own music, she realized that the only way she could establish her identity was by leading her own trio with a book of original compositions. She's written extensively for every album since her first, In the Mist of Time (2001).