Surprise and Intrigue: The Moods of Mamiko Watanabe

Mamiko Watanabe

Dragging her notes to create tension, Mamiko Watanabe is master of interplay with her bassist in “A Little Piece for Dance.” Utilizing a choppy style interspersed with brief spells of lyricism, she hides inventive note-sentences around each bend. Perhaps there’s a Latin-infused little riff, or block chords suggesting an Eastern European darkness. Where the theme will land is anybody’s guess.

Although free-form and tough to pin down, whether with her trio (bass and percussion) or quartet (adding trumpet), the music serves up a feel of funk and cohesion. Mamiko is definitely equal partners with her amazing (and completely invested) cohorts on stage. On paper maybe it would look like crossing codas and indecipherable time signatures. Ignore that.

Listeners would do best to leave their entire boxes of music theory back home. Mamiko and friends bring beauty and energy to a new level. 

What got you into jazz in the first place?

I had started piano at age four. A piano teacher I met at music school when I was around seven years old suggested composing a jazz-style song. She felt it might fit well with my musicality. My mother had me listen to big band music at home and on the way to school to inspire me to write a song using harmony, melody and rhythm. That’s how I got into jazz for the first time.
What stuck with you from your training?

I had learned so many things at music school and Berklee College of Music.  I’m still educating myself through playing with established musicians, playing hymns at church every Sunday and teaching my students.  All of these things are highlights of my education and will continue to be.

What is the jazz scene like where you live (NYC?)?

It is competitive, but it keeps me growing and inspiring.
Who are your music idols?

Herbie Hancock, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner and Bach.

What do your colleagues bring to the overall sound?

My piano trio features two amazing musicians, Santi Debriano on bass and Francisco Mela on drums. I admire their deep knowledge of traditional jazz and different grooves. They both bring the organic feel to the overall sound and that has the power to make people dance.

When did these ensembles start?

I’m really grateful to all amazing musicians who had played on my previous CDs “One After Another” (2005), “ORIGIN/JEWEL” (2007) and  “Mother Earth” (2007). I had learned a lot through these recordings and each was a great experience.

The trio started from the recording we did in February, 2017.

I met Santi Debriano in 2016 and asked him to play on my recording on February 2017. I was so happy that he said yes.
When was “Flying without Wings” released?

It will be released in February.
What does the name refer to?

The CD was named by the drummer Francisco Mela. When we were playing back a recorded track in the studio, he mentioned that “it’s like flying without wings!”  We were listening to the second track of this CD and I thought “Flying Without Wings” would be perfect for the title.

Mamiko Watanabe CD

What went into composing these songs?

I used to write songs that were more arranged and challenging. With this album, I wanted to write songs in a simpler way and use it as a map to develop music freely with the trio.
What themes inspire you when you write?

I don’t usually have a specific idea or theme about a song. I start playing around on the piano, then if I come up with the melody or bass line that I like, I will try to develop those ideas and make a song. I get inspiration from people around me and listening to other artists.

What’s your favorite track?

The original song “Waterfall.”
What is the most important element for somebody who’s just starting out in jazz- 1) about the art form; and 2) about the industry?

About the art form: The definition of jazz is the difficult thing for me to describe.  Jazz was born in America and is an American art form. I believe we all need to educate ourselves to learn its history.

About the industry: I think it requires perseverance and a strong faith to continue working in the music industry. I also think a musician should be open to different styles of music.

How do you make your connections for future collaborations?

I meet new musicians through playing gigs or somebody’s recommendations.
What do you like most about the piano?

I like that the piano can create the sound of the orchestra. There are limitless possibilities on the piano.

Talk about your work on “Sand and the Beautiful.”      

It was composed by flautist/producer Ronald Lashley. This track featured me on keyboard and was released in September 2017 from Hawthplay Records LLC.
What about that infamous opening glissando in “Rhapsody in Blue”?      

I enjoy it very much. I had used part of the phrase when I was improvising!

Plans to expand your exposure in 2018?

My plans for this year is to promote my new CD “Flying Without Wings” and get more performance opportunities with this trio.

Where will you perform?

I’ll be performing with trumpeter Valery Ponomarev and his Sextet at Zinc Bar in NY on the first Wednesday of every month. I’ll also be playing with Valery’s big band every month at Zinc Bar.

I’m hoping to do a CD release gig in NY in a few months.
Other comments?

I designed the album cover for “Flying Without Wings.” 

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mamiko Watanabe.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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