A gift for improvisation

Tokyo-born violinist Meg Okura teams up with three Israelis in the Jazz Meets Classical section of the Hot Jazz series.

Meg Okura 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 the offing.
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 series.
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.
In fact, Okura says her genre epiphany was a long time in coming.
“I always 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 voice.”
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 five.
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 Center.

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.