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.
Self-effacing but with healthy ambition—and genuinely glamorous—pianist Yoko Miwa is a shimmering study in contrasts. Her music is loyal to sources and roots, yet it is fresh and sexy. Everything is in balance in her work. On a most elemental level she is like a graceful hostess at a grand party, catering to the desires of all; on a deeper level she is an architect. Imagine, far from her native Kobe, Japan, a dilapidated ballroom, say, in Detroit. Say it is the place where the old jazz masters used to play, and you walk in through the doorway for old time’s sake. However, the joint has been refurbished, everyone is dancing, and everything is sparkling. That is how it is to listen to Miwa.