DownBeat March 2021

Miwa Finds Focus Amid Pandemic Lonely Hours”—with its delicate, upper-register opening pizzicato solo by Slater—in full aware- ness of her father’s deteriorating health. “I sat down and played, and it just came up fromme,” Miwa explained.

W hat Yoko Miwa has gone through during the coronavirus pandemic will sound familiar to a lot of other working musicians: gigs canceled, recording sessions postponed, recitals livestreamed, les- sons remote. For the Boston-based pianist, the stress was compounded by tragedy: the illness and death of her father in Japan, at a time when she was unable to be with her family. Remarkably, Miwa emerged from those first months of the pandemic with a new record- ing by her trio, her ninth, which, given the cir- cumstances is remarkably upbeat and affirma- tive, living up to the album’s title, Songs Of Joy (UbuntuMusic). It wasn’t easy. For starters, the band, which was accus- tomed to playing at least twice weekly at residen- cies in the Boston area, went into the studio cold, after four months apart, for a date that ended up including five new originals by the bandleader. And, of course, there were the necessary proto- cols for collaborating during a pandemic. “I was really nervous for two weeks before,” Miwa said. “Would we be safe?” Will Slater, the band’s longtime bassist, now living inNewYork, usually would stay at the home of Miwa and her husband, the trio’s drummer, Scott Goulding. This time, they booked Slater a hotel room for the day of rehearsal and three days of recording, in July. “We brought hand sanitizer, and extra masks for everybody,” Miwa recalled. “[Typically,] when we perform, we like to be as close as possible.” But under these circumstanc- es, the players had to set up as far apart fromone another as they could. But there’s no sound of strain on Songs Of Joy ,whichkicksoffwitharoaring,McCoyTyner- esque version of Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” inspired by that singer-songwriter’s iconic per- formance atWoodstock.Miwa’s taste for unlike- ly covers of ’60s and ’70s pop also comes through in her reflective take on the Anne Bredon tune popularized by Led Zeppelin, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” (with bassist Brad Barrett in place of Slater) and on Billy Preston’s “Song Of Joy,” which Sheila Jordan introduced to her at one of the legendary singer’s annual gigs with theMiwa trio in Cambridge. To stay focused during the pandemic, Miwa gave herself the assignment of writing a tune every day, running them by Goulding for feed- back. Those sessions produced the hard-bop swing of “Small Talk,” the Latin rhythms of “The Rainbirds” (inspired by Kenny Barron), the hooky melodic riff of “Largo Desolato” and the Bill Evans-like impressionism of “Inside A Dream.” Miwa describes her process as driven by mood and emotion. She wrote the pensive “The

In addition to writing every day during the first months of the pandemic, Miwa lives- treamed Facebook performances every Friday and Saturday, drawing some interesting audi- ences. “I’d be looking at the comments,” recalled Goulding, who acted as cameraman, “and I’d say, ‘Yoko, George Cables is watching now. ... Kenny Barron is watching now.’” As an associate professor at Berklee College of Music, Miwa has been teaching remotely, with individual students connecting from their homes around the world. “I actually enjoyed it,” she said. “I set up two cameras, so students could see my hands on the keyboard, and I sent themrecordings after the lesson. ... And students would sometimes walk around their house with the camera. I’d see their families, and they’d showme their pets. It’s kind of fun.” Still the fallout from the pandemic has been rough. Miwa saw numerous gigs postponed or canceled, including a show at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center and a performance at the Ella Fitzgerald Competition at the National

Yoko Miwa recorded her trio album Songs Of Joy during the pandemic.

Mall, in Washington, D.C. Plus, the home of one of Miwa’s regular weekly gigs, Boston’s Les Zygomates bistro, has closed permanently. All the more reason Miwa was glad to get into a recording studio: “I was so happy to be playing with my trio again. Even though I was very nervous about the situation, at the same time, the joy, the happiness came from our music.”  —Jon Garelick


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