How Yoko approaches arranging songs

How Yoko approaches arranging songs

photo 3 If you come to see me perform live, you’re bound to hear some of my original compositions, but you’ll also hear the music of other composers I admire as well. I listen to a wide variety of music. To me it’s like food, and you can’t eat the same food every day.

I try to avoid playing songs that I hear other pianists or piano trios playing. Instead I try to draw from non-piano-focused music. I love listening to other pianists and the way they improvise and interpret the music they play. It’s just not how I discover music that I want to play, because it’s already been done. I know there are a lot of pianists out there intentionally trying to sound like Brad Mehldau or guitarists trying to sound like Kurt Rosenwinkel. It makes sense from an educational standpoint, but it doesn’t make sense to me to go out in public and do that. Most of all, it just isn’t artistically rewarding to me.

I’ve spent a lot of time transcribing every note that Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner played. Not only did I focus on getting all the notes correct, but I also went back and tried to emulate their rhythmic feel and tried to get inside their touch on the piano. When I plan a set of music to play at one of my own performances, it doesn’t make sense to do that either. I love paying tribute to my piano heroes, but I also feel there’s no need to do a historical recreation of the past. Although I do sometimes try to think of a song that Bill Evans might have played if he had lived longer and I try to imagine how he would have approached it.


I don’t limit myself to repertoire which is traditionally labeled as jazz, but I believe jazz is a huge umbrella. I don’t listen to music with the intention of seeking material I want to perform in my trio. There may be a song I like, whether it’s a Brazilian song with vocals or something with a quintet from a classic Blue Note or Prestige album. Or it could be Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, or Bjork. It might be a Calypso song from the 1930’s or a Carl Perkins song I heard Patsy Cline sing.

Harvard gave me this piano First I’m am inspired and fall in love with a song. Sometimes I realize right away this is perfect for me and other times it’s not evident for a long time. Then I have to figure out if I can do it, I’m not talking about just simply playing the melody in the right hand and the chords in the left hand, which is the typical pianistic approach. It’s how I’m going to play the melody like the human voice sings it. That’s one of the most challenging things to do on the piano because you can’t bend the notes like a singer can. Or I have to figure out how I’m going to get that same rich sound and harmony of the quintet all on the
piano, or how I’m going to translate the strumming of guitar strings. Often the answer lies in how I use the arrangement of what the bassist and drummer play in my trio. I also have to determine if there’s an opportunity to use it as a vehicle for improvisation.

Sometimes it takes a lot of work just to get to the point where I realize a song isn’t right for my trio, but it might be perfect for solo piano. Sometimes I have to completely abandon it. A large part of what I would consider the “A list” of my repertoire is music I’ve been listening to for many years. I already adored it before I ever planned to play it myself, but when I really listen to what it has transformed into I feel like the music found me and not the other way around.

4 Responses

  1. Doug says:

    Always great hearing and reading about your journey. I am hoping you will arrange & record for hire any of my tunes when convenient and of course only if you like them. Have not had the pleasure of hearing you live. It is a high priority & know it will be soon! Thanks, fan Doug

  2. Yoko Miwa says:

    Thank you Doug! Hope to see you soon at one of my shows, would love to hear your music too.

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