Grammy-nominated Jazz Composer and Violinist Meg Okura Releasing 10th Album

The Japanese native is debuting her new duo album “Lingering” on May 10, during Asian American Heritage Month.

| 03 May 2024 | 01:39

Grammy-nominated jazz composer and violinist Meg Okura realized early on in her career that she wanted to create her own sound.

“I always felt not completely satisfied with playing dead white composers’ music,” said Okura, 50, whose new duo album with pianist Kevin Hays, titled “Lingering,” has a release date of May 10th.

“There is nothing wrong with it; it’s beautiful and wonderful, but you’re under the dictatorship of the conductor and basically functioning for other composers’ visions. Whereas, I felt that I had more to offer. I always had a lot of music inside.”

Okura, who grew up in a suburb of Tokyo and started playing the violin at 4, made her Kennedy Center debut at 19 with the prestigious New York String Orchestra.

She moved to New York to attend Juilliard, where she studied the violin. However, while she was there, her teachers were impressed by her composition skills and encouraged her to pursue writing her own music. Upon graduation, she decided to study jazz, and has been working in the New York jazz scene for over two decades.

Besides working on her albums, she also founded the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble and serves as the musical director and arranger of the Sakamoto Tribute Ensemble, which honors world-renowned composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who passed away last year.

Okura, who converted to Judaism a decade ago, also performs at synagogues around the city and can be found at Temple Emanu-El most Fridays.

She lives in the Bronx with her husband, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, and their 13-year-old daughter, who studies at Spence.

How old were you when you started taking violin lessons?

I was four years old. My mother discovered my perfect pitch, so she just thought it would be useful if I played the violin. She was very musical; she was an amateur musician. My parents were first-generation Christians, so they wanted my siblings and I, but I had the talent, to accompany the services. So I started playing the organ and piano for the church by age 6.

Did you move to New York to attend Juilliard?

Yes, I had my debut at Kennedy Center when I was 19. It’s a very prestigious orchestra, the New York String Orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma, he did the same thing, he was also a soloist. It’s a very historic orchestra for young musicians. So I was able to do that. And then, after that, I auditioned and got into Juilliard, so the rest is kind of history.

I read that you switched to jazz after you graduated. Why?

Especially growing up in a church, I used to improvise and make up my own music. And I did not want to live the rest of my life just playing other people’s music. And going to Juilliard kind of determined that was the default path. And a lot of people audition for orchestras and then get a job, which is wonderful and it’s very competitive, and I’m not diminishing it. But for me, I realized that I don’t have the same kind of passion for classical music as a player, and I really wanted to be the best musician I could become. And also, when I was at Juilliard, composition faculty members urged me because they were really stunned by my compositional abilities. All of them basically said, “Why are you a violin major? You should be a composition major.” One of them said my fugue assignment was the best he’d seen at Juilliard in 28 years.

Tell us about the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble that you founded.

I formed the ensemble in 2006 with the encouragement of John Zorn, he’s a very important composer in the downtown jazz scene. He’s basically a legend. He told me that I should form my own ensemble and start playing my own music. At the time, I was already touring a lot with his label Tzadik. So he encouraged me and I started writing for my own group and it constantly is changing. It started out as a quintet, but now it’s at least 10 pieces.

How can you explain your new album?

I have previously published nine albums, including co-leadership, so this will be my tenth. It’s a duo, so violin and piano and nobody else. It was recorded in four hours in Brooklyn. My duo partner, Kevin Hays, is amazing. He’s a very accomplished jazz pianist. Right now, he’s on a world tour with James Taylor. We met 10 years ago on the crosstown bus. He recognized my husband because they are both very accomplished jazz musicians. And it turned out that we were on the same gig that night, the three of us were all playing together. The connection was, according to my husband, very evident from the gig. He turned out to be our neighbor, so that night, we just got together and started jamming. He said, “We should go into a studio tomorrow and make an album.” But, of course, Kevin’s busy and I’m busy. But when COVID hit, I decided to write something special for the two of us and it’s called “Seven Short Pieces.” That is featured on the album. And then three other compositions of mine and one by Kevin. And two tracks are completely improvised on the spot.

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