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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tomoko Omura- "I needed to become the jazz violinist only I could be"

Last week, I got to sit down to chat (in Japanese) with the New York-based fellow jazz violinist Tomoko Omura whom I genuinely admire and respect. Originally from Shizuoka, Japan, Tomoko has been chosen as a “Rising star” on critics poll on Downbeat Magazine for the past three years. Though this is no Downbeat, Tomoko was kind enough to participate in my post-Passover FOUR QUESTIONS Series, and I hope you enjoy!

Question No. 1
You have received many honors as a jazz violinist and a jazz artist. What do you consider your
Image result for tomoko omura imagesbiggest achievement?

TO: My most significant achievement is my decision to leave Japan, my home country, and coming to the U.S. to set a new course for the rest of my life. After receiving my music ed degree in Japan, I still didn't want to become a school teacher.

Question No. 2
When did you decide to become a jazz violinist, and did your goal and dream ever change since the initial decision?

TO: I decided to become a jazz violinist at 21. My mother was a classical violin teacher, so I hated classical violin. But I liked jazz and began listening to every jazz violinist- John Blake, Zbigniew Seifert, Mark Feldman, Jenny Scheinman, Sara Caswell, Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Jean-Luc Ponty, Didier Lockwood, Christian Howes... I loved parts of each one of them, and I wanted to fuse my favorite elements from one of these very different players that I admired. Becoming my ideal jazz violinist became my dream, and that never changed.

Question No. 3
If there is anything in your life that you would like to change, will you share?

TO: Yes. I would like to make more time for the people I love and stay closer in touch with them.

Question No. 4
There are many jazz violinists in New York today. What makes you unique?

TO: What makes me different as a violinist might be the fact that I am not trying to be a jazz violinist. I want to become the complete musician, the best jazz musician I can be, and the violin just happened to be the instrument I play.

MO: Thank you so much, Tomoko. I can relate to you on that last comment. The violin is a very tricky instrument for jazz and "in" jazz as well. I find it admirable that you had a single vision and steadfastly stuck with it for all of these years in Boston and New York. Now I know why you play the way you do!

For information about Tomoko Omura's music and events, please visit her "excellent" website

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Can Your Music Serve a Purpose, or Be Useful? Here Is How Erica Seguine Does it!

As the end of Passover approaches, my "Four Questions" (Ma Nishtanah - what is different/what changed?) series will feature my colleague and friend who also happen to be a female Jewish composer. The winner of the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize in 2013, Erica Seguine is a young and accomplished jazz composer who co-leads the Erica Seguine & Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra based in New York City. Erica is one of several jazz composers whose works have helped demolish my preconception of what big band jazz should sound like. Her compositions show feminine sensitivities (if I may) at its best, with her unapologetic expressions of complex emotions, expanding the definition of jazz without being offensive to those who lean towards jazz purists or traditionalists. Here, Erica shares her innermost thoughts regarding her approach to compositions and beyond!

Question No. 1: You have received so many awards as a jazz composer. What do you consider your most significant achievement or achievements?

ES: The achievement that brought the most joy, I would have to say, was being one of 8 arrangers selected for the Metropole Orchestra Arranger’s Workshop in 2012. Being selected opened me up to an amazing experience in the Netherlands, a world-class orchestra that could truly play just about anything at such a high level, so much inspiration and lessons on writing and orchestration, meeting some really cool people (both participants and musicians of the MO), and having the opportunity to write for them then and the years beyond.

I was most shocked at receiving the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize in 2013. I honestly did not expect to win it, and it’s an achievement I’m really proud of. I’m also proud of it because the following piece (the Manny Albam Commission) that came out of that pushed me to a new level of writing that I didn’t know was inside me.

However, I sincerely hope that my most significant achievement is still ahead of me down the road.

Question No. 2: Have your goals and dreams as a jazz composer changed over the years, or you have always had one vision and stuck with it?

I went into music school and came onto the scene wanting to have some ensemble of my own performing my music. I also wanted to create CDs and share my music live with as many people as possible. I still want those things.

What has changed over, say the last two years, is more the “why.” On top of still wanting those things, as I debate taking something on, or think of what I want to convey in a concert or potential recording, I often ask myself what purpose I am serving. What is the music being used for? Can I try to touch at least one person through my music whether it’s a commission or a performance? Can I give someone solace through their discomfort, or uplift, or inspire? Usually, the answer is if I can give that to myself through the project I’m doing, I try to trust that it will follow for others.

Question No. 3: What would you like to change about yourself or an aspect of your life?

ES: I really wish I had more belief in myself, more confidence, and a much more stable sense of self-worth and self-direction. I’m working on it, but I’m more clearly seeing how my insecurities get in the way of just about every aspect of my life, even when I try to follow what I love despite them. For years I’ve made excuses of why I shouldn’t put out a CD yet (financial reasons, band wasn’t ready at the time, music wasn’t ready), but as most of those reasons eventually dissolved, what remained was the big fat “I’m scared that I’m not good enough, and that I’ll be rejected” staring at myself in the face. It’s not the best part of me. I guess it’s a lack of any sense of stable empowerment, no matter how much work I try to do on that.

I used to beat myself up much more for being “sensitive,” but that’s an aspect I’ve been learning to embrace, and even beginning to thrive in.

Question No. 4: Your music is unmistakably unique. What do you think makes your music different especially from other composers in the U.S.?

ES: I guess one thing that makes me different from others is simply the experiences I channel in my writing, and how I perceive them. Some of my works are very personal and dive into some intense emotional states and situations that are paradoxically unique to me, but also fairly universal on a human level. Perhaps it’s also my compositional philosophy that stands out: Finding the essence of a particular piece is the most important to me, and every musical element, from whether to color a harmony with a particular note or leave it out, to what instruments I use and how I use them, to verbal instructions on the page, to when I change a meter to let a phrase breathe a little more or less, and so much more.... all these elements can enhance or detract from that essence. I guess it’s more of my rejection of certain assumptions (such as “This chord is old hat,” “This sounds classical,” “That voicing is too low,” “Always resolve it this way”) that might stand out the most, and trying to focus on what is simply best for that moment of sound. I put a lot of care into every note I write, but I believe some other composers do this too (especially you Meg!)

MO: Thank you, Erica. But I'm still searching for the "right thing to write". I particularly appreciate your approach of trying to eliminate the musical detractions. I have recently caught myself trying to "add" more to enhance, ending up sounding nothing like myself.

Thank you, Erica, for taking the time for this interview and I too believe that your greater success is yet to come! I am pleased to inform you that you can catch Erica Seguine with the J-Orchestra at JCC Harlem on May 17th!

For more information about Erica Seguine & Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra, please visit:

Friday, March 23, 2018

How To Be The First-Call (and still be a jazz artist AND a family wo/man)

(by Meg Okura)

The Four Questions Series Pt.1
Ben Kono

multi-woodwind player & jazz saxophonist/composer

Ben Kono is undoubtedly one of the best multi-woodwind players in New York, if not in the history of music. I have known Ben since the very early 2000's, but when I heard his compositions at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn several years ago, he blew me away. Thrilled to have him back in my big band, the J-Orchestra, for the upcoming concert on May 17th at JCC Harlem! 

Question No. 1
You have achieved many successes in your career as a bandleader/composer and also as one of the best woodwind players in music today. What do you consider your most significant achievement?

BK: It’s difficult to pin down any one event or achievement as being the most significant as a musician’s career is an ever-changing continuum. Receiving a grant from Chamber Music America to write and perform for my own band was a big one for me, but I am equally honored to have had a rich and varied career playing for my peers and mentors over the years. To raise and support a loving family while enjoying doing what I love to do, I would have to say that’s the most significant achievement I could ever dream up!

Question No. 2
Have your goals and dreams as a musician changed over the years, or you have always had one vision and stuck with it?

BK: My singular vision of having a career in music I have stuck with for over 35 years. Within that vision, however, things are always changing. My first dream of being a musician was to play clarinet in a symphony orchestra. Then I discovered jazz, picked up the saxophone and decided I would become a teacher. I went to college to become a teacher, then went on the road with various big bands, and moved to New York to redefine myself as a jazz musician and composer. After all these years, I feel I’m finally getting back to teaching as my focus. If there is any one thing, I have stuck with it’s to take every opportunity seriously and bring my absolute best to it, because you never know where it will lead you to.

Question No. 3
What would you like to change about yourself or an aspect of your life?
BK: I think achieving a healthy balance between work, family, and play is particularly challenging in a musicians’ career and I would like to become better at that. As my daughter gets older and more involved with music and art studies herself, I am enjoying being able to share more of my world with hers. But I’m also finding it increasingly difficult to spend meaningful family time as both our schedules become busier. Being able to say ‘no’ to professional opportunity occasionally is something that every musician has to struggle with.

Question No. 4
Besides being the best woodwind player, what makes you different as a jazz saxophonist of our generation from all of the other ones in the U.S.?

BK: Developing an individual voice is perhaps the greatest challenge of any artist. I can’t say that, as a saxophonist, that I would stand out in a crowd (and it is certainly a huge crowd in New York City!). What I do offer, and have worked very hard at, is being able to project my individual voice across multiple woodwinds. Aside from the versatility and wide palette of color afforded by this, I have found that the discipline I bring to the oboe or bass clarinet, for example, may find it’s way into my saxophone or flute playing unconsciously. I think doubling as a jazz musician is fascinating and so few people do it well, but I am always blown away when I come across, say, a trombonist who whips out an accordion and you can’t tell which instrument came first. 

Find out more about BEN KONO @

Tomoko Omura- "I needed to become the jazz violinist only I could be"

Last week, I got to sit down to chat (in Japanese) with the New York-based fellow jazz violinist Tomoko Omura whom I genuinely admire and r...