The new release from vocalist Yuko Kawasaki, City Counterpoint, is proof that even during strange times, art born of passion will ultimately rise to the top. Beset by delays from the lockdown, Kawasaki and her musical colleagues have produced a scattering of tracks that have a quality of hope, harmony and better times on the horizon.
The six songs on this album feel smooth, balanced and soul-satisfying. In “On Gates Avenue,” her voice evokes a mist, a mood and the nuance of the slightest change of temperature; a reediness and openness that blends perfectly with the accompanying pure lines from organ and sizzle and pop from percussion. Singing in unison with trumpet on the subtle waltz “Night Drifters,” Kawasaki scats like skipping stones on a pond, her range broad and easy. Poetry in her native Japanese tongue begins the earthy “Rain Dance” whose chordal construction builds, twists and takes the listener to very unexpected pathways (with stunning piano work).
Personnel includes Eden Ladin (keys), Noam Wiesenberg (bass), Keita Ogawa (drums, percussion), Philip Dizack (trumpet), and Fabian Almazan (piano).
What was the moment you decided to be a musician?
To tell the truth, I was trained to be a visual artist before I knew I wanted to be a musician. I started playing trombone in the local brass band when I was nine years old because my older sister, who was two years older than me, had started playing first. At the time, I enjoyed practicing and became more enthusiastic as my skills on the instrument improved the more I practiced. I also enjoyed playing with other people. However, after junior high school, I didn’t like it that much and I wanted to quit but my mother wanted me to keep playing, so I did, until high school graduation.
In the meantime, I became obsessed with making art and decided to pursue a different path from music. However, after graduating from high school, I worked part-time as a waitress at a café-restaurant that had live jazz and blues performances on weekends, and the live music I heard there got me. I am from a rural area in Japan, so I had almost no chance to see foreign artists or meet people from overseas. Nor had I ever been to a live concert.
I heard a Japanese vocalist with a voice far beyond that of a Japanese, and a black South African female singer singing blues and jazz for the first time, and the experience of the power and the way the music instantly lit up the air was wonderful and touched my heart. From then on, I started going to live jazz clubs and performing to records played by DJs at Black music nightclubs.
What were the most important lessons of your formal education in music?
I started my music career in Japan, and after working for a while, received my formal music education in the United States.
I have played the trombone and French horn since childhood, so I was familiar with playing instruments, but as for vocals, I think I learned music almost entirely by ear. I listened to and absorbed a lot of different music and developed my own vocal style. I think self-taught musicians are exposed to a lot of music anyway, and naturally imitate it and apply it to their playing. In the process, there must be a process of analyzing why the performance of your favorite artist is great and why it is different from your own performance. A musician who spends a lot of time applying himself to his own playing and repeating trial-and-error will be a great performer.
I am surrounded by many great musicians who are self-taught and produce music that is unique and of better quality than those with formal musical education. I had the desire to compose music based on jazz harmony, so I stopped my career and came to New York to pursue formal music education in college. I am very glad that I was able to learn the essential elements of jazz performance in a systematic, comprehensive, and efficient manner at an American university. And once I had a bird’s eye view of the whole picture, it became easier for me to understand where I stand, what kind of musicality I want to pursue, and where I want to dig deeper. I feel that this has been very helpful in analyzing and embodying all kinds of music.
Who was most influential to you in your music?
I was greatly influenced by great alto saxophonist, Steve Wilson who is my professor at my college and my friend and producer of the upcoming album City Counterpoint, Camila Meza.
Also, two of my roommates and great jazz pianists from our age, Eden Ladin and Jack Glottman, when I moved to the United States provided lots of inspiration. They have long been active in New York City as professional jazz musicians. Seeing them perform up close, hearing their ideas about music in their everyday lives up close, and performing with them, I discovered a new vision of my own musicality and music.
I was also able to delve deeper into my own music. I believe that they raised the bar I set for my own goals and showed me a roadmap for where I am heading.
Although we have never met or known each other in person, British jazz vocalist Norma Winston has been an important part of my own vocal and creative resources through her recordings. In that sense, I consider her a mentor.
What did you learn by performing and songwriting that school did not teach you?
I learned a lot about communication between musicians and having many conversations through music. This is very similar to learning a new language. We can learn grammar, words, and sentences at school but we’re surprised by the differences when we have a real conversation.
My education really helped me with basic composition. When I write music, I analyze jazz and other genres and that leads me to new discoveries and ideas.
Another thing I learned from the gig is the importance of communication and connecting with others. The importance of being professional, nice to people, supporting others well, being well prepared and always ready to go, and being on time and on deadline. One thing they don’t teach in school is how to contribute to society through music, and I was not taught anything about the music business. I learned it through my own experiences in the actual production of albums, booking of gigs, promotion, etc.
Talk about what it’s like getting gigs today in the NYC market.
It’s very competitive. Being the center of the jazz scene attracts top musicians from all over the world. It is quite difficult to penetrate. However, all musicians are very closely connected to each other, so once you join the community, horizontal connections are quickly formed and it becomes easier to perform.
As a non-native artist, and especially as a non-native English speaking vocalist, I often think about how I can be myself as a jazz vocalist in the United States, the home of jazz. There are wonderful jazz musicians from all over the world. Those performers are presenting their unique works through the filter of their own philosophy and identity. In the past, I tried to perform a vocal style based on jazz vocal traditions. However, no matter how much I tried, I felt something was wrong because I could not express history and tradition enough to get it into my bones and flesh, and I felt like I was imitating someone else.
There is also the issue of language. I used to take vocal lessons from my producer, Camila (she an amazing vocalist from Chile), and when I was struggling with pronunciation, she told me that “beyond a certain level, the audience will listen to the person themselves rather than their pronunciation.” And now, I use a vocal style that takes advantage of the nature of my voice as a Japanese person. I also take an instrumental approach and use improvisation to express my personality.
When you compose, are you primarily driven by melody, chord structure, rhythm or overall feel of a piece?
I always have the subject of the piece in mind. Then I have a vague but flowing image, atmosphere, and approximate chord sound. It depends on what kind of song I am composing, but since I am a vocalist, I often start with the melody first. After that, I add chords based on the image and atmosphere in my head.
Where do you feel most inspired to write?
I often come up with good ideas and melodies while waiting for the train or on the train. I record it with voice memos and then transcribe the score when I get home. As for lyrics, I tend to write lyrics in a quiet time, especially early in the morning or in the middle of the night, sitting at my desk in a calm setting. The music is often completed first, and then I play the story of the music in my mind in a quiet environment and translate it into words.
How do you want to develop and grow as a musician?
I want to continue to polish my skills and perform music that is connected to who I am. I want to be able to give back to the jazz scene, which has taught me so much and given me so many opportunities. I have chosen music as my artistic platform to express my art. I hope to connect my thoughts and observations based on my Japanese philosophy as a woman and to drop more meaningful works of art into the world.
What specific keyboards do you play and how do you take care of your voice?
I use a Yamaha 88-key electronic piano at home to practice and compose music.
As for voice care, I drink green tea every day. It has a sterilizing effect. I also drink a lot of water. In winter, I often drink ginger milk tea with honey. It is not only for my throat but also because it tastes good. I regularly pour a Japanese Ryukakusan herbal medicine down my throat. Regardless of COVID, I try to wear a mask when I’m in the subway or approaching crowds.
Inspiration for the upcoming CD?
All of it is inspired by New York City life.
People living in a city have their own unique life stories. So many of them are hidden or untold. As an observer of a fragment of someone’s life, you can imagine whether there’s great happiness, intense despair, unconditional love, or strong frustration. These impressions always come with questions. And these questions teach you something about yourself by reflecting on your own life visions. These may be just minor stories with no significance, but if we pay attention, there are deeper, more beautiful and more complex meanings lurking in them.
Those witnessed fragments of life are like a “counterpoint” in the story of the main character in the city, creating beauty and contrast and ultimately allowing for growth and self-reflection.
What were the challenges of production?
The album was produced during COVID and was entirely completed online, from recording to mixing and mastering. Production preparations began in the summer of 2019. Originally, we were supposed to record the album in May 2020 at Bunker Studios in New York City. However, due to COVID and the fact that the musicians were living all over the world, we decided to continue the production of the album online.
Camilla and I decided that although it would be a lot of work, we would have more time to work on it than if we used a studio with limited time. We took our time and created a well-developed piece of work.
However, the work was much more difficult than we had imagined. We spent a lot of time preparing to record acoustic instruments in a high-quality environment, finding musicians who could do so, and changing instrumentation to make it happen. Some of the tracks were made by connecting the recording studio and Camilla, the producer, and receiving instructions at the same time. Since Camilla and I were almost halfway around the world from each other and on opposite timelines, we had limited meetings and working time. We met on Zoom and worked together almost every day and stayed in close contact.
All the recordings were completed on New Year’s Eve in 2020. We believe that the hard work of this effort was worth it and that we have produced a wonderful album.
What part of life as a musician do you love most of all?
It may be cliché, but I am grateful every day for the privilege and opportunity to be able to enter an environment where I can always catch the beauty of life as an everyday person and be able to express it freely through my art and share it with others.
For more information, visit www.yukokawasaki.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke