For proof that music is the international language, look no further than composer, arranger, and big-band leader Miho Hazama’s vibrant and unpredictable artistic journey.
A piano student calibrated in the world of European classical music, the Tokyo-area native was studying at conservatory in Japan when she had her jazz epiphany. Now based in New York, Hazama is about to lead her 13-piece band, m_unit, with its signature lineup of French horn, trumpet, woodwinds, string quartet, vibraphone, piano, double bass, and drums, on its debut U.S. tour.
The Golden State tour commences on Oct. 28 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Samueli Theater in Orange County before heading north the next evening for a performance produced by the Jazz Bakery at the Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. On Oct. 30, the band will appear at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, with a date two nights later at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The group’s California run concludes Nov. 2–4 at the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at UC Davis’s Mondavi Center.
Hazama was steeped in the scores of Maurice Ravel, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Ottorino Respighi back when she first played in her college’s jazz big band. While she had originally envisioned film scoring as a career path, playing compositions by Jim McNeely, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, and Gordon Goodwin introduced her to the ongoing evolution of modern jazz orchestras.
After earning an undergraduate degree in classical composition from Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, she attended Manhattan School of Music to study with McNeely. For her master’s recital, she assembled a big band of student and professional musicians with the same unique instrumentation as m_unit. With a master’s degree in jazz composition, she set out in 2012 to forge her unique path in writing and arranging for large ensembles and directing her own band.
“That [instrumentation] is more like a natural sound in my brain,” Hazama said in a recent phone interview. “It’s much closer to the voice I’m hearing as a composer.” While traditional big bands feature trombones, trumpets, saxophones, and a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, and sometimes guitar), m_unit’s string quartet (violinists Tomoko Akaboshi and Ben Russell, violist Matt Consul, and cellist Meaghan Burke) draws a sonic through line to Hazama’s classical days. Adam Unsworth’s French horn adds a brass sonority to her palate, and James Shipp’s vibraphone playing shifts between traditional front-line and rhythm-section roles.
The woodwind players in m_unit all double, with Jason Rigby playing tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet, Garrett Wingfield on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, and Ethan Helm handling alto saxophone and flute. Pianist Billy Test, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Jared Schonig bring to the bandstand their collective experience with the likes of WDR Big Band (in Cologne, Germany), Silkroad Ensemble, and the 8-Bit Big Band. Opportunities for improvised solos keep each performance — and every performer — fresh.
Though m_unit has toured in Europe and Japan (where they collaborated with local musicians) and is a familiar presence in New York, the first time Hazama led her group out West was at the 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival. She was the commissioned artist for the 2020 festival, which was switched to a virtual event, and was able to present her Exoplanet Suite a year later. That became the basis for m_unit’s latest album, Beyond Orbits, which was released in late September by the British label Edition Records.
One of Hazama’s musical heroes played a role in her getting the commission and performing at the world’s longest-running jazz festival, an experience she described as “like an American dream story.”
Then-MJF Artistic Director Tim Jackson “told me that he called Maria Schneider to ask about the name of a jazz-type composer,” Hazama recalled. “That’s the reason why I got that commission.” And he kept Hazama in mind when it came time to book this tour. “I’m so grateful that Tim still keeps in touch,” she remarked.
When she spoke with SF Classical Voice in mid-October, Hazama had just returned from one of her other major gigs: chief conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band. She was appointed to the prestigious position in 2019 and followed the likes of McNeely, Bob Brookmeyer, and Thad Jones. The DR Big Band will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year and started this season honoring Jones’s centenary.
“Thad used to live in Denmark, and then he passed away in Denmark. So he’s quite a big icon over there,” Hazama reflected. “We just did six shows with his music across the country, which was really fun.
“His son William is still in Copenhagen, and he came out to one of the concerts the other day,” she continued. “He looks so much like his dad, and William’s voice is so similar to what I’ve heard in videos of Thad.”
A classically trained Japanese musician is leading a heralded big band on the European continent, home to many of her initial compositional inspirations. Though their biographies may read differently, it turns out Hazama and her Danish bandmates have strong points of reference in common.
“Many of them used to live in New York City. Of course, the generation is different. But the vibes, they know about,” she said. “To me, it’s surprisingly really comfortable to work with them. They do understand my language from New York City, and we understand each other.”