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Violinist Meg Okura and Pianist Kevin Hays Play the Chamber Music of the New Jazz

Meg Okura has played with artists as varied as David Bowie, Lee Konitz, Diane Reeves and Cirque du Soleil. The Juilliard-trained violinist even made a solo debut at the Kennedy Center when she played European concert music exclusively. So her versatility is beyond question. But who could have predicted that she would be as adept with deadpan humor as she is with a bow?

“Dad joke,” she said, explaining a social media post she captioned, “My daughter will kill me if she saw this, but… I am going to do it anyways, just to see how you all will react… ‘Ohio (gozaimas) Cleveland!’”

Teenagers might roll their eyes at the pun—they roll their eyes at everything—but Cleveland’s reaction should be nothing but warm when the Tokyo-born Okura presents a pair of concerts next week with her duo partner, pianist Kevin Hays .

Being a mom who is fluent in dad jokes is just one way the supremely adaptable Okura has of mastering in multiple disciplines simultaneously. She gained early notice playing the giddy mashup of klezmer and Cuban conjunto music cooked up by percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez as part of Tzadik Record’s Radical Jewish Culture series.

In Jewish or Afro-Cuban music, Okura admitted “I had neither training or background. Because I have perfect pitch and I could adapt really well, I just used my ears to come up with lines or feels that made sense to me.

“Playing the same montuno over and over, repeating the same thing hundreds of times per concert gave me a lot of rhythmic strength I think has shown through my other kinds of jazz playing,” she said. Okura pointed to her bravura solo features on Michael Brecker’s “Timbuktu” when she was touring with the late saxophonist.

Meg Okura

Jazz gave Okura more than just an opportunity to shine on the bandstand. “Jazz was the ultimate way for me to be the best musician, or even best human I could possibly be, as far as achievement and what I can contribute,” she said. “There is no better way to improve than learning the history of jazz and then making it your own and really seeking to improve upon what came before, and seeking your own voice.”

Increasingly, it is Okura’s compositional voice that has gained prominence. Her piece “Phantasmagoria” premiered at New York’s Roulette on the what would have been composer and former colleague Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 72nd birthday in January, and will receive performances in Columbus, Wisconsin and Florida later this year.

A chance meeting

That’s a far cry from the scale of her concerts with Hays in a duo setting that many musicians feel is the most exposed and intimate in music. Yet even this closeness was accidental.

“I met him for the first time on a bus on the way to Temple Israel, because he recognized my husband, Sam Newsome. Kevin was hired to play the piano for the service where my daughter and I were converting to Judaism. Of course we had a get-together party after the service on Friday nights, and it turns out that he lived right in front of our building in Harlem.

In time, the two began to play together and developed a musical affinity..“We tried a few things, but we didn’t really make a record until I decided to write something and make this work because the pandemic made me realize that pursuing large ensemble projects was not gonna work very well. So we got together again and then I wrote nine short pieces and then some improvisational tracks that we went into a recording studio eventually to record.”

That record will be out in a few months, but for the current tour Okura and Hays will offer the thrill of what she calls “mostly spontaneous composition. The premise of the tour is bringing jazz to places where they don’t normally have jazz. So we’ll probably do some of my writing from the record, but it will sound different because it’s a duo.  We’ll probably pursue some standards during the tour, but each show will be slightly different.”

Okura looks forward to hanging at BOP STOP and renewing ties with executive director Bryan Kennard, whom she met through the International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers in which they are both active.

“Being a jazz composer is the only way I can I feel like I could fully be embraced for who I am,” she said, “because there would be a lot of women composers, Asian composers, not-American-born composers who would say that the way to acceptance is difficult.”

Meg Okura with Kevin Hays, Tue. Feb. 20, 7 p.m., BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. Tickets $20, available here. The concert will be livestreamed on BOP STOP’s YouTube page.

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,