Another thread in the Thelonious Monk tapestry

Miles Okazaki to perform in PT

Posted 8/21/19

When Miles Okazaki was attending high school in Port Townsend, some of his favorite memories include learning musical theory from a man living in a cabin in the woods.

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Another thread in the Thelonious Monk tapestry

Miles Okazaki to perform in PT

Posted

When Miles Okazaki was attending high school in Port Townsend, some of his favorite memories include learning musical theory from a man living in a cabin in the woods.

“Alex Fowler would sit there smoking a pipe and we would learn ‘Circle of Fifths’ and stuff like that,” Okazaki said. “I was always into that stuff,” he said of the harmonic system that explains the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, key signatures, and the major and minor keys that are the invisible backbone of music.

That love of music would eventually lead Okazaki to the east coast. He initially attended Harvard as an undergrad, but soon discovered the academic life wasn’t for him.

His true passion led him to the Manhattan School of Music in New York City and then to The Juilliard School.

“It was intimidating, the level of musicianship out there,” Okazaki said. “Sight reading, for example, I wasn’t good at that. Generally if you want to work you have to be pretty good at that. I had to figure things like that out in order to be a professional.”

Okazaki said such pressure helped hone and shape the musician he is today.

“I think you tend to rise to the level of whoever you are with. With music or with sports or anything, if you play with people who are better it will improve your game. The opposite is also true. I have always sought out people who kicked my butt. I still do.”

While in New York, Okazaki continued to explore music theory. In 2018, he released “Work,” his first album of standard repertoire, a five-hour performance of the complete compositions of Thelonious Monk for solo guitar. Monk, the second-most-recorded composer in jazz wrote a mere 70 pieces, compared to the 1,000 penned by Duke Ellington, who is the most-recorded jazz composer.

“Monk is a heavy duty theoretician,” Okazaki said. “He knew what he was doing. He didn’t write books about it or anything, but you can tell from the compositions there is a lot of stuff going on. And so, they are very rich in that sense.”

Monk may be the greatest composer to have ever lived, Okazaki said. In studying Monk’s works, Okazaki has learned how to improvise on stage.

“In order to improvise, you kind of have to know what is going on. There are a lot of great players that don’t know about theory but have a very good ear.”

But that can only go so far, Okazaki said.

“If you want to really do something new, there is a little bit of a science.”

That is not to say Okazaki is focusing on theory during a live performance.

“It is just a vibe,” he said.

Old records

Okazaki began on classical guitar at age 6.

“I think it is a type of instrument you can get pretty easily,” he said. “It is cheap. It is not a piano and not quite as annoying as a trumpet or saxophone.”

Growing up in Port Townsend in the 1980s and 1990s, Okazaki was somewhat disconnected from contemporary pop culture, he said. That meant instead of New Wave music, he was dusting off his parents’ old rock albums from the 1970s.

“I never was current. Port Townsend wasn’t as connected then as it is now. There was no internet. I listened to old stuff like classic rock — Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. I listened to Jimmy Page and Hendrix because I liked the way they played the blues.”

Okazaki was playing regular gigs on electric guitar by age 14, he said.

“I was never a shredder. I didn’t listen to metal that much. I did like Eddie Van Halen, but did not want to play guitar like that.”

Being initially uninterested in jazz, Okazaki got turned on to the sound during his time participating as a youth in the Centrum Jazz Workshop.

Later, Okazaki received many awards as a guitarist throughout his early years, and eventually placed second in the Thelonious Monk International Guitar Competition.

Fundraiser

During his show Thursday evening, Okazaki will perform selections from the Monk project along with other jazz standards.

“This will be a rare opportunity to see and hear an inspired and accomplished Port Townsend native performing in his hometown,” said George Rezendes of 4PT Productions, which is producing the show.

Carla Main, an event organizer, said 4PT is pursuing nonprofit status, with the sole purpose of providing area residents with opportunities to listen to world-class music.

“People without deep pockets can participate,” she said. “We are hoping to be able to pay the musicians, so we do hope people who can pay will pay.”

Okazaki is an astonishing performer, Main said.

“He has combined an intellectual approach to jazz and embodies the artist he is studying. In the case of Thelonius Monk, he doesn’t mimic anything and doesn’t leave out anything. He gets to the heart of the matter and I think he has done an amazing job.”

One man band

For his upcoming show in Port Townsend, Okazaki will incorporate a full jazz band into one guitar, which is part of the fun, he said.

“I might be imagining a full band but what comes out is only what is possible. If you have a photo filter, for example, that turns everything into black and white. All the color is gone but you still see some version of the original thing and sometimes it is more interesting.”

Those who are familiar with Monk’s music may still be surprised by some pretty obscure pieces Okazaki has resurrected, he said.

“If you like Monk’s music, then it will be a different version than people have heard. If you aren’t familiar with it then you might get turned on to something new.”

Okazaki gives full credit to the original composer, he said.

“This is just an interpretation. I like to represent that history, because I think it is very important to pay tribute once in a while whether it is Monk or Duke Ellington.”

The performance should last about 90 minutes, he said.

“It is hard physically to do a long solo performance, but it is a joyful kind of music. I am never looking at the clock or anything like that.”

To produce his unique sound, Okazaki plays on flatwound nickel strings.

“That is a little unusual, but I have been using them forever,” he said. “They are too expensive but I like the way they feel. It is the only fancy thing that I allow myself to get.”

A family reunion

Since this is the first time in many years Okazaki has performed in Port Townsend, he said he is looking forward to reconnecting with old friends.

“It is going to be a little bit of a reunion. That will be fun.”

And, Okazaki suspects those who have not heard him perform for the past couple of decades may be pleasantly surprised by this evolution.

“I just like to try to present something maybe people haven’t seen on a guitar,” he said. “It is a little unusual, the way I play the guitar. It is a little different than I used to play it in high school.”

For more information, visit milesokazaki.com.

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