“…chamber jazz has found its queen in Meg Okura.” - Dan Bilawsky, All About Jazz
“Okura has made a bold statement with Naima, ensuring her place among the top names playing chamber jazz.”- Jon Neudorf, Sea of Tranquility
“A confident collection of chamber jazz that is wide in scope and deep in feeling…features outstanding solos by Okura.”
“Meg Okura offers a clear sense of vision of her world of music. Okura's Naima goes to many places, speaks in many voices, and is often rich with surprises and admirable in its aspirations.”
- Mark Hayes, EJazz News
“…(Meg Okura ) is equally comfortable playing classical chamber music, rock and everything in between.” - Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“Ms. Okura’s vibrant, Eastern-influenced, jazzy score and the playing of her musicians were the most sophisticated parts of the work” - Roslyn Sulcas, The New York Times
“… (some of) the best jazz New York has to offer.” - Elliot Simon, All About Jazz
"... mixes a classically trained mastery of strings, piano and drums with quick-witted compositional twist performed with high energy." - Jennifer Odell, Down Beat Magazine
“The group delivers exactly what its name promises… the group found a common ground in '60s-style modality, occasionally reminiscent of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner's Eastern explorations.” - Will Friedwald, The New York Sun
“…elegantly intertwine(s) elements of classical, jazz and world folk into a new sound…by presenting precisely played ethnically inspired
Playing everything from Paganini to Coltrane, violin virtuoso Meg Okura puts a certain sparkle into jazz. Formerly a classically trained concert violinist, the composer and jazz violinist has revolutionized the world of chamber jazz by artfully entwining her already colorful and moving pieces with inspirations from various cultures and countries to create a purely enchanting experience.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, the multi-faceted artist cultivated her musical talent at the Toho Gakuen School of Music at the age of five. Meg’s artistic ability later led to her position as concertmaster and soloist of Asian Youth Orchestra, and eventually her United States debut with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in her teenage years. She furthered her education at the Julliard School, earning both bachelors and masters degree in the study of classical violin. Soon, persuaded by her Juilliard professors’ belief in her exceptional talent, Meg began to pursue a transition from the classical violin to something even more challenging—jazz.
Studying jazz harmony and improvisation, Meg dedicated herself to mastering the tradition of jazz and soon, with her switch of genres and evolution into what she explains as “a more complete musician”, Meg began to advance her career as a jazz violinist. Touring with artists such as 13-time Grammy winner Michael Brecker and Steve Swallow, and recording with jazz artists Dianne Reeves, Lee Konitz, and Sam Newsome, Meg has performed at prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Lincoln Center, and London’s Barbican Centre. In addition, she has collaborated and performed with Oscar nominee actor and Columbia recording artist Terrence Howard, as well as been featured in three Cirque du Soleil shows, exhibiting her remarkable talent as an improviser on the violin.
In 2005, however, Meg embarked on a journey unlike one she had ever endured, challenging herself as both a violinist and composer, and starting her own group.
Inspired by her experience in the various countries that comprise Asia, Meg composed and recorded a compilation of music that would soon lead to the birth of her latest project, the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. The works she composed comprised the seven-person ensemble’s self-titled debut album, which won the group notoriety as a finalist for “Best Album” in the 2006 Independent Musicians Awards, and have made the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble the rare gem of the jazz world.
“Composing is the most natural thing for me to do—it’s as though music just comes to me. Sometimes I can be composing complicated music in my dreams and thanks to my perfect pitch, I can hear music in my head and know exactly what notes I am hearing and can write them down,” says Meg.
The ensemble, which “mixes a classically trained mastery of strings, piano and drums with (a) quick-witted compositional twist” (Down Beat Magazine, Jennifer Odell), played to sold-out concerts in Japan in 2008 and has also performed at the NYC Winter Jazz Festival, Knitting Factory, and the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center.
Now, Meg’s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble presents their second album, “Naima”, named as a tribute to jazz icon John Coltrane, highlighting Meg’s unique new arrangement of the classic.
“The first album was the music that came naturally to me without any objective. This album is…more Asian, more jazz, and more chamber music. Touring Asia as a teen was really a life-changing experience, making music with musicians representing nine different Asian countries, working closely together and traveling together. I draw upon my memories of Asia and try to access my feelings toward the people, the culture, and the nature and sceneries of Asia (for inspiration),” Meg says.
Featuring rare instruments the shinobue (Japanese bamboo flute) and the erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin), which Meg plays in addition to the violin, the album is a “collection of original works that represent and symbolize the name of (the) group.” The ensemble “…elegantly intertwine(s) elements of classical, jazz and world folk into a new sound…by presenting precisely played ethnically inspired original compositions in an exciting modern jazz context” (All About Jazz, Elliot Simon). This unique approach to music has earned her numerous grants and awards as a composer, making her to be one of today’s leading voices in the world chamber jazz.
Yet, Meg also offers two familiar tunes including the title cut “Naima.” “The modal quality of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ echoes with the music of French Impressionist period,” she says. In this unique new version, she creates fluidity in texture and colors by writing arpeggios moving towards different directions while slowly shifting the chords to encompass stillness within movements. “It’s an Impressionist violin concerto meets modern Jazz with a hint of Japanese mode”, Meg says. The other familiar piece on the album “Carpice”, on the other hand, is a Latin jazz piece based on a theme from the famous Caprice No. 24 by the Italian composer and violinist, Nicolo Paganini. It features virtuosic cadenzas by Meg Okura herself and pianist Mamiko Kitaura.
The album ends with a 25-minute through-composed suite entitled “Lu Chai”--music inspired by a poem of the same title by Wang Wei, a great poet from the Chinese Tang Dynasty. “To play chamber jazz, most, if not all of the players in the group must be jazz improvisers,” Meg says. The suite showcases variety of solos including one by the veteran jazz flutist, Anne Drummond, as well as solos on instruments not typically associated with jazz, such as the cello and even the erhu.
Today, Meg resides in New York City with her husband, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, and says she is living her life, fulfilling her dreams and relishing every day in new understandings and identity.
“I take to heart the new challenges of being a composer, jazz violinist, Asian American, artist and wife, while at the same time, constantly reminding myself of the responsibility to do my absolute best to achieve foremost excellence in the arts...”
Meg Okura (violin, erhu), Anne Drummond (flute), Jun Kubo (flute, shinobue), Rubin Kodheli (cello), Mamiko Kitaura (piano), Jennifer Vincent (bass), Willard Dyson (drums), Satoshi Takeishi (percussion), Dave Eggar (cello)