Miki Yamanaka, an incredibly talented jazz musician making waves in New York City, inherited her many kimonos from her mom and grandma.
They provide a special sense of connection to her family: she never met her grandma, who died when her dad was 18, and wearing a kimono was also an important tradition for her mom. “My mom was very passionate about wearing kimonos before I was born.”
If you go to see her perform at Hermann’s Jazz Club on Feb. 4, you could spot this eclectic and vibrant 33-year-old New York-based Japanese pianist quite quickly. She’ll be donning a brightly coloured extravagant kimono, and based off past-show looks, it will be complemented by brightly painted lips and bold-framed glasses underneath her chopped bangs.
In the jazz scene, Yamanaka learned that fashion can get you seen.
“I used to work with this amazing trumpet player Philip Harper; Art Blakey used to tell him a lot ‘People see you before they hear you’. It’s a great line to make. I always think a lot about that.” Yamanaka said.
And Yamanaka has been getting seen. This straight-ahead jazz player has had notable residencies at mainstay West Village sister clubs Smalls and Mezzrow. Critics have lauded her “light, expressive touch and solidly crafted, mainstream approach” (Mike Jurkovic in All About Jazz). And now, Cory Weeds, owner of Cellar Live, a prominent jazz record label, has asked her to come to Vancouver to make a record.
“Cory Weeds is putting together the festival (Jazz @ The Bolt) and he said, why don’t you make a record after?” she said.
With that new record on the horizon, Yamanaka is now on tour, stopping in Portland, Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on Feb. 4, and then Vancouver Feb. 5.
For Yamanaka, wearing a kimono is now a colourful tradition that plays into her artistic identity, and it only started recently.
“After COVID there weren’t many gigs. I had so much time to prepare for one so I wanted to look a little special. I have these kimonos that I brought from Japan so I decided to wear them. It became a thing and now I wear them every performance.”
|While Yamanaka has not yet picked out her kimono for Hermann’s Jazz Club, she said it most likely will be “something bright coloured so I can stand out a little bit.” (Martina DaSilva)|
They have come to have their own special place in Yamanaka’s life. “It becomes a little bit of a ritual. I wear one and I feel like I’m ready to hit the stage.” The pandemic lockdown gave her the time to relearn the art of putting them on, which she said is “a process.”
Sometimes her audience is curious about why she wears them but she takes it in stride. “I say, dude, because it looks so dope! It’s cute!” she said with a laugh.
Yamanaka’s new album is going to feature new music with a mix of some of her favourite songs and arrangements. She doesn’t have it all planned out yet, but jazz rarely is. “I’m just more of a spontaneous person,” she said.
“That’s the beauty of this music. I just want to make good music with the people that I admire.”
Her tour shows will consist of the same quartet she is recording with. She plans on approaching the shows with some of the same sense of spontaneity, only this time – the audience will be part of what unfolds.
She says she pays attention to audience reactions and what she will play depends on that.
“I will see their reactions of how they’re digging different styles of music. We’re going to present the music for you all, but as you react to the music, how you cheer to us, how you have a good time and be in the atmosphere together is very important for me. You’ll become part of our band.”
That connection to her audience is part of what kept her pandemic-started YouTube series “Miki’s Mood” going for more than 100 weeks without stopping. Yamanaka says that now that she is playing enough in-person, “Miki’s Mood” will take a pause in March and then continue with less frequency. “I still care about my audience online,” she said.
You can see Miki Yamanaka on Feb. 4, 7 – 9 p.m., for all ages at Hermann’s Jazz Club. Tickets are $38 in advance through hermannsjazz.com or the Victoria Jazz Society office or $43 at the door (pending availability).
She is also performing in Burnaby on Feb. 5 at the Jazz @ The Bolt festival, in two showings at 5:45 and 7:30 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at Shadbolt Centre. Tickets are available at https://coryweeds.com/jazz-the-bolt-2023/.