Arts Beat: Classic jazz by the Yoko Miwa Trio at the Tisbury Water Works

Jazz pianist Yoko Miwa. Courtesy Yoko Miwa.

If you enjoy hearing classic jazz in a bucolic setting, you’ll want to take in the Yoko Miwa Trio on Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Tisbury Water Works. Presented by Pathways, the musicmaking will be followed by a celebratory reception in honor of Pathways’ founder, Dr. Marianne Goldberg.

The Boston-based trio, with Miwa on piano, Will Slater on bass, and Scott Goulding on drums, is a regular in Boston’s jazz scene, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the famed NYC club Blue Note, and at jazz venues around the world. 

Miwa grew up in Kobe, Japan, in a home filled with music. Her mother, raised in post–World War II Japan, played a number of traditional Japanese instruments, including the koto (a stringed instrument she taught her daughter), and loved jazz, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and other popular music on the radio back then. Miwa started piano at the age of 4, in a system that was extremely strict, with Chopin eventually becoming a particular favorite. She says, “I always knew I wanted to play something other than classical, but wasn’t sure what. Then I found jazz.”

While in high school, Miwa was introduced to a jazz musician from Kobe, Minoru Ozone, well known at the time as the organist for a popular late-night TV show. (Minoru is not to be confused with his famous jazzman son, Makoto Ozone.) Ozone Sr. agreed to teach Miwa in return for her teaching at his music school and working weekends as a waitress in his jazz club. You got that right, a waitress. Miwa signed on, and the perks turned out to be terrific. She heard jazz masters, and was often invited onstage to play. The 1995 earthquake put an end to both the school and the club, and Miwa knew she’d need to start making her own way. 

Continuing her private studies with Ozone, she enrolled in the Koyo School of Music and Dance in Kobe, an affiliate of Berklee College of Music. There she was advised to audition for a Berklee/Boston scholarship. She wasn’t sure if she should audition, but did, and won first prize. She went to Boston, thinking she’d stay for one year, but played so many hours a day, she developed tendinitis. She withdrew from performance classes, adding composition to her studies. Her arm healed, the year was up, but instead of heading home, she stretched her enrollment to graduate. Professional gigs were happening, and she decided to start her trio. By then she knew she “definitely wanted to stay.” Along the way she met her husband of 11 years, drummer Scott Goulding, and here she is.

There’s a definition of jazz as good as any from a scene in the mockumentary “Spinal Tap”: “Jazz is mistakes, you’re playing a song wrong. It’s a lot of wrong notes. They don’t get the melody right. They teach it in schools, you can get a degree in how to play it wrong. Jazz is an accident. An accident waiting to happen!” Precisely.

Of course there are minor details like melody (original or borrowed) and chord changes, with the “accidents” played by highly trained artists esthetically in tune and in sync with one another. Count Basie said, “The real innovators did their innovating just by being themselves.” There’s a lot that goes into “being one’s self,” and Miwa combines her extensive classical training with her urge to compose, her Berklee experience, and her imaginative study with Ozone.

At her first lesson with him, she listened to Ozone play the tune “Tenderly.” He then gave Miwa the lead sheet (the notated melody line and chord progression, not the full score) and a recording, told her to come back in a week and recreate exactly what he had played. By ear. She went measure by measure, listening to the recording “a million times” and figured it out, never even looking at the lead sheet, assisted by her perfect pitch. “Wow!” was Ozone’s response. 

Taking a page from her study with Ozone, she still analyzes charts and recordings of some of her jazz favorites, including Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Part of her process now is a sort of etude (a technical musical study) she has devised for herself. She’ll find a phrase she likes, work it out by ear, and then play it in all 12 keys. Miwa also listens to tunes, studying the harmonic structure and rhythmic ideas, then transcribing or memorizing them. These exercises help to keep her ears and hands nimble, but her improvisations, like Basie said, are her own. “When you’re actually improvising, you cannot think,” Miwa reflects. “The music needs to be spontaneous. I hear what I want to play before it goes into the keys. It’s like singing through my fingers.” Come to the Water Works and hear the Yoko Miwa Trio not thinking.

Editor’s note: “Arts Beat: Weekly Thoughts from the Inside” will return next summer. In the meantime, watch for features on assorted topics by Wendy Taucher in The MV Times.

Yoko Miwa Trio, presented by Pathways, at the Tisbury Water Works, 400 Spring St., Vineyard Haven, Sunday, Sept. 15, 4 to 7 pm. Music starts at 4:30 pm. Free, reception follows. Indoor seating is limited. Event will be live-streamed on the Pathways outdoor screen. Chairs will be provided, but feel free to bring your own. No reservations required. Find more Information at