Among the many crazily creative and quirky musicians that this magazine is proud to be able to support, Miho Wada rates highly on all counts, prolificacy included. Her ‘last’ album, ‘Mystery Banana’, was released in April this year and just five months later she is back with not one, but two, new releases – an EP recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis (yes, that one) and a ‘live’ album-plus-DVD recorded at The Lab in Auckland. Mohamed Hassan talked with the Japanese-born, flute-playing, jazz-pop princess.
Perhaps it was written in the stars that Miho Wada would end up in the City of Sails. Raised on the seaside Japanese town of Miyazaki, Miho (‘beautiful sail’ in Japanese) was always defined by her father’s fascination with the sea, apparently heightened by a seasickness that kept him from being able to sail himself. She talks animatedly about her father’s all-consuming love for yachting, and how our heroic win of the 1995 America’s Cup convinced him to move his family to New Zealand.
“He was so inspired by NZ for beating America in the America’s Cup that he was like, ‘I want to be part of this great nation’.
Not long after, she and her family had built a life in Christchurch. Her music would subsequently take her to London, Morocco, Cuba and the U.S. before she settled in Auckland back in 2009.
In person, Miho is every bit as passionate and eccentric as she is on stage, and it’s not hard to see why her audiences connect with her the way they do. Somewhere between Tank Girl and Sailor Moon (there’s probably a better anime reference but you get the idea), Miho embodies her music in every sense. It’s impossible to imagine her doing anything else, and it’s this kind of passion that led her to leave a prestigious full time role as a flautist with the National Orchestra of Malta.
“I thought that was my dream come true, but I didn’t really fit in,” she explains. “Everyone in the orchestra was like, ‘Oh, it’s just another day of work’, and I was like, ‘No! Music should be fun! Where’s the happiness and smiles?’ I really missed it.”
Deciding a next step was in order, Miho moved back to London where she had studied at the Trinity College of Music, and spent a few years playing with a myriad of jazz, Latin, salsa, rock and ska bands around that city. Given a stint as a salsa session player she quickly became enamoured with Cuban folk, toured with Ska Cubano, and in 2008 flew to Havana to study with members of Sierra Maestra and the Buena Vista Social Club.
“The Cuban people say that you have to always make sure that you’re playing in the beat, that people don’t trip over, and I had never thought of that before.”
After trawling through her already impressive catalogue of albums, I still couldn’t place my finger on how exactly to describe her sound. Flute-driven obviously – mostly instrumental although she does sing (in Japanese and Spanish) sometimes – poppy but not pop anthemic, never taking itself seriously yet retaining the virtuosity of its musicians. Unsurprisingly, it turns out she knew how to describe her music better than I did.
“I suppose I’m classically trained, but I’ve listened to J-Pop all my life. The music I write is quite catchy and it’s upbeat, like all the anime themes and cartoon background theme music.”
A childhood love for contemporary Taiko drum groups like Yamato fueled her fascination with the flute.
“I also love the traditional Cuban flute, so I wanted to do something that combined the two flutes like that. I think I’m getting there.”
Miho’s Jazz Orchestra has been together for three years now, after a one-off recording session became a permanent gig. The band consists of Miho on flute and sax, her husband Pascal Roggen on violin, cellist James Donaldson, guitarist Andrew Rudolph, bass player Leo Corso and drummer Jared Desvaux de Marigny.
They came together in 2011 to record Miho’s first instrumental EP ‘Para Tí’. A few shows later, and they were playing at jazz festivals around the country, including Nelson, Tauranga and Waiheke. They’ve toured in Australia and Japan twice. Miho says she was surprised by the reception they received going back home to play the jazzy hybrid of the music she had grown up listening to.
“The audience was so reserved, I didn’t know how to take it in the beginning,” she laughs. “Then they all came up to us afterwards, and they formed a nice little queue, and they were like, ‘Oh, can we please have a CD? Can I shake your hand?’”
The idea for a live album was suggested by bassist Leo Corso, after numerous fans told them they missed out on their electric live energy when listening to their albums. It was decided they would record a live performance at The Lab in Mt Eden, where most of her albums have been recorded.
“We get lots of crowd participation as well. We get people to shout out and dance and we have competitions to see who can do the best swaying and stuff.”
The album, ‘Miho’s Jazz Orchestra Live At The Lab’ wasn’t without its challenges. Miho describes how unnerving the permanence of a live recording was – no editing, over dubbing or starting over.
“It’s quite embarrassing in a way. It’s all our little habits recorded, like the scratching that happens, or the noises, it’s all there.”
Miho has consistently recorded and released so has a large and diverse volume of work. Indeed she’s also just dropped a four-track EP titled ‘Memphis Dreamin’’, which was recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis with the help of Dave Roe, bassist for the late Johnny Cash. Of her regular band only husband Pascal features on that.
The recording session was one highlight of a writing, learning and performing trip that took in the U.S. music capitals of New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville.
Her previous album with the Jazz Orchestra, ‘Mystery Banana’, was recorded in Tokyo, Auckland and London, and officially launched at the Tauranga National Jazz Festival during Easter weekend earlier this year. Miho’s most successful release to date, ‘Mystery Banana’ debuted at #13 on the NZ album charts.
‘MJO Live At The Lab’ includes a matching DVD and is a delight to listen to. It shows a cohesive band completely comfortable in their musical skin, and under the guide of the quirky genius of Miho. It’s a great collection of the most-loved songs from the band’s catalogue, as requested by their fans, injected with the energy of a live audience and the flare of a group of musicians who know how to engage.
Most of all, an overwhelming sense of how much fun these guys have doing what they do. Recording it in a studio has meant that it sounds like a studio album, but like Miho says, it’s “real and “naked in all the best ways only a live performance can be.