Meg Okura 520.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone who has even the slightest inkling of the world music scene in this part
of the world cannot help but be aware of the fact that there have been, and
continue to be, a healthy number of East-West cross-cultural musical projects in
Even so, Meg Okura will stretch our culture-bridging expanse
next month when she brings her highly individual mix of Asian classical music
and various forms of jazz here as part of the next installment of this year’s
Hot Jazz series (April 5-9). The Tokyo-born NYC-resident violinist and erhu
(twostringed spike fiddle) player will team up with three Israelis – pianist
Arik Naisberg, who initiated the confluence, bassist Avri Borohov and drummer
Aviv Cohen – for the definitively named Jazz Meets Classical part of the
The 37-year-old Okura began straying beyond the strict confines
of her classical music breeding some years ago when a teacher at the prestigious
Juilliard School in New York convinced her that she had an exceptional gift for
improvisation. This happened while she was in the middle of her master’s degree
in classical violin at the academy. Her educational surroundings
notwithstanding, Okura soon began to pursue a transition to jazz.
fact, Okura says her genre epiphany was a long time in coming.
knew I was more than a person who just read what’s on the page,” she observes.
”I’ve always improvised. When I finally made the decision to switch to jazz, I
decided to devote myself to learning improvisation and the traditions. But one
of the most important things about jazz is to have your own personal
The latter comes through loud and clear in Okura’s work from her
landmark album Naima, on which she proffers her singular readings of works by
iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Typically, she seasons the final mix with
a wide range of colors and stylistic forays. “On this album, there are a lot of
musical influences and references besides jazz, incorporating late romantic
music – especially French impressionism – and bossa nova, Latin jazz,
contemporary jazz, funk, R&B and Asian music.”
All this, she is quick
to point out, is the result of a natural and very personal process. “I didn’t
try to combine all these influences into one project. It’s just a reflection of
who I am as a musician.
Okura’s musical DNA is, however, also very firmly
rooted in the classical world. She was born and raised in Tokyo and she began
cultivating her love of music at the Toho Gakuen School of Music from the age of
Her precocious, talented and relentless drive later led her to the
position of concertmaster and soloist of the Asian Youth Orchestra, culminating
in an acclaimed teenage United States debut with the late conductor-violinist
Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra at the Kennedy
Today, one of Okura’s principal vehicles of expression is the
Pan-Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, which she leads. Her work with the ensemble has
earned her across-the-board accolades and epithets such as “the queen of chamber
jazz,” while the group’s work has been described as combining “elements of
classical, jazz and world folk into a new sound.”
In fact, Okura has
spread her musical wings far and wide in recent years. The highly varied list of
artists who have benefited from her genreblending sensibilities includes Jewish
New Yorker vocalist Basya Schechter, whose Pharaoh’s Daughter band incorporates
hassidic chants, Sephardic folk-rock, spiritual stylings and electronic. There
is also a rich slew of jazz titans in the Okura CV, featuring the likes of late
saxophonist Michael Brecker, veteran reedman Lee Konirz, vocalist Dianne Reeves
and septuagenarian bassist Steve Swallow.
Rock-pop idol David Bowie has
also worked with her.
Clearly for Okura, if there’s a boundary to be
found, it will be flexed and molded to suit her eclectic take on the rich
universe of music.The Meg Okura quartet will perform at the Gerard Behar
Center in Jerusalem on April 5 at 9 p.m; Zappa Herzliya on April 6 (doors open
8:30 p.m. Concert starts at 10 p.m.); Tel Aviv Museum on April 7 at 9 p.m. and
on April 8 at 9:30 p.m. And at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on April 9 at 9 p.m.