Hot House Jazz Guide, October 2015, P.43

Latin Jazz By Emilie Pons

Japanese pianist mixes her musical heritage with jazz and Latin music

 “When I was 20 and just played jazz, I loved the sound of jazz, but I was not satisfied,” Chiemi Nakai explains. “Somehow it was not really deeply touching me.”

Nakai loves giants such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, she says. “The first time I heard jazz it was Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Horace Silver.” However, she thinks Latin music has passion while jazz doesn’t. “Jazz is too intellectual, too complicated sometimes. When I met Latin music, I realized ‘Oh, this is my music.’”

Nakai’s passion for Latin music started when she was around 30 and living in Osaka. “The band Orchestra de la Luz was very popular and became famous in South America and New York,” she recalls. “I knew a few band members. Salsa was very popular in Osaka at that time.”

Nakai’s emerging passion took her to Cuba in 1997 and then to New York, where she played Latin music and learned a lot from the music of Cuban pianists Emiliano Salvador and Ernan Lopez-Nussa. “They played everything, especially Emiliano,” Nakai says. “He was a kind of icon of Cuban Latin jazz.”

Nakai performs at Jazz at Kitano on Oct. 29. “I have been playing there on a consistent basis for six or seven years and that place has made me progress,” she says. “Gino, the manager, gives me a chance every year. He trusts me to play there and I want to give my appreciation back to him―with my music.”

Japanese pop music’s melodies are very similar to Latin music, “with minor chords” in particular, Nakai explains. “The feelings are the same. Latin music is sentimental, sometimes melancholy. It’s not really a happy, joyful thing.”

Many of her Latin jazz compositions are influenced by Afro-Cuban music, Nakai adds. “I love Cuban music and I love Salsa.” Nakai’s main influence is Latin music, but the melody and flavor of her work is Japanese pop music. Nakai was introduced to jazz in her 20s, and then to Latin music. “Now, I somehow combine everything,” she reflects. “Latin jazz, Latin melodies and rhythms in my music are a result of my journey.”

Combining is a Japanese characteristic. “Japanese people are good at absorbing and studying other cultures,” Nakai explains. “Japanese pop music is influenced by American pop songs as well as Latin music.” And Nakai loves the Yellowjackets. “Their music is not complicated,” she says. “The melody is simple and very catchy. Some people might not like it because of that. Some people might think this is not jazz. But I really love the simple, touching melody and the nice arrangements. I love Bob Mintzer.”

Nakai’s upcoming Kitano performance features her quartet with saxophonist and flutist Justin Flynn. “Justin puts my music on another level,” Nakai says. “Of course, I am a composer and I decide what I am doing in my music, but now we create together. We make music together. If I can’t do this range, he suggests another direction that makes me think, and which is very surprising and new.”

Nakai is used to thinking of all the melodies on her own, but recently, she has realized she “wants to hear another melody.” And she loves “the sound of the tenor and soprano sax,” she explains. “Another important part of Flynn’s talent is that he can play the flute,” Nakai adds. “The flute is very good for Latin music. And sometimes I can hear that my music needs the flute.”

Nakai, who has released the albums Transformation (2014) and bridges (2008), now wants to take her career to the next level and is eager to play at some festivals.

Pianist Chiemi Nakai performs at Jazz at Kitano on Oct. 29 with her new quartet featuring Justin Flynn on saxophone and flute, Carlo De Rosa on bass and Vince Cherico, drums.





INTERVIEW ; by Jai Jeffryes (pianist, writer)

SUNDAY, JUNE 15, 2014

Chiemi Nakai

Pianist, composer, and arrangerChiemi Nakai came to New York City in search of Cuba from Japan first in 1997. Now an established salsa pianist, arranger and band leader, she released her second CD,Transformation, in January 2014.

New York Pianist first discovered Chiemi at Victor's Cafe, a Cuban restaurant in the heart of Manhattan, where she was performing with a salsa trio. We met later to discuss crossing over oceans and genres and Chiemi's next musical destinations.

NYP: What was it like, Chiemi, when you first came to New York?

CN: I came here from Japan and entered a master's program for jazz performance at Queens College. Since then I have worked mostly in the Latin music field; salsa, Cuban music, and so on.

NYP: Tell me about your music in Japan and what led you to New York.

CN: I lived in Osaka for 10 years. I worked as a jazz pianist. In 1992 or 1993 salsa was getting popular with bands like Orquesta de la Luz, a Japanese salsa band, and I became interested in playing Latin music instead of jazz, so I formed a salsa band and we played together.

NYP: Were there Cuban musicians in Japan, or were the members of your band Japanese?

CN: Mainly Japanese. We didn't know very much about Latin music, so we studied. Some of us went to New York or to Cuba, and we watched videos. We studied together. In 1997 I came to New York to see performances and hear bands. I was surprised by how many good salsa bands there were. I wanted to play with them so I decided to move here, and I came in 1998. I thought I would stay a while and see what would happen. Actually, I didn't expect to remain.

NYP: You thought you were going to be a student for a while and then go back to Japan?

CN: Yeah, I thought so, but now I've been here 15 years! I was able to play with salsa bands here, and I had opportunities in the field of Cuban music. There are many Cubans living here and I was able to work with them. I graduated from Queens College and after that I worked freelance, I played some gigs and I also studied writing. I like to compose and arrange music. I studied how to write charts and I got work writing arrangements for salsa bands.

NYP: What kind of arranging clients do you work with?

CN: I work with another arranger who is also my teacher and he has many clients and he needs help. He gives me some work. I also have my own friends who call me for charts.

NYP: Were there challenges to gaining acceptance in this field as a Japanese musician? When it comes to playing Afro-Cuban music, for example, you're not African, you're not Cuban. Are there barriers to acceptance?

CN: I have a friend, another Japanese, who is a salsa singer. We came here together and tried to make something happen. She has become a very good singer. She is pretty popular right now and people use me a lot. We Japanese have some qualities that people like a lot. We're serious, we're punctual, we have a good attitude. We can study very well and learn what people need. I think people find it easy to handle us! I think people respect us. People are also receptive to use a female for a gig. It's kind of unique. That is a good point for me, I think.

NYP: Do you speak Spanish?

CN: Not really, just a few cue words.

NYP: Is music your sole livelihood?

CN: Yes, music is my life's work. As I get older, though, I can say that I've been here a while. I'm not a rookie, so I look for new things. I'm a composer, too.

My latest CD, Transformation, is Latin jazz. It's not really salsa. In it I combine my jazz feelings with my Latin feelings. It is all original music, my own compositions. The CD is available from me directly. The price is $10 and people may order it by emailing me at:

NYP: I would like to ask about salsa piano playing. What does a salsa pianist need to know about other jazz idioms?

CN: Salsa is very formal music. There is a chart, and there is not really an improvisational dimension for the pianist. The singer has some room for improvisation, even with lyrics, but the other musicians less so. Sometimes the percussionist has a part where he gets to stretch in an open solo.

NYP: That surprises me. I always thought the syncopated accompaniment patterns played by the salsa pianist were so cool. They're very intricate, these montunos. Are you saying that these are all written out?

CN: No, not really written out. Of course, we have to study how to make a montuno. Then you have to fit it to the chord symbol. If we study that, it's easy to get, how to make a montuno. After that, we can make the montuno fit any chord symbol. It's not really a tough thing.

NYP: Well, Chiemi, I think it would be tough for me, and this is why it is such a pleasure to hear you! You do so naturally what might be tough for another pianist, and you make it sound musical, exciting, and easy.

So is it fair to say that if someone is a fine jazz pianist already, crossing over into salsa is not a big deal? There are things you have to study, but you already have the musical foundation for it.

CN: Yes, if you already read chord symbols and have time, you'll be okay.

NYP: What is your next musical musical destination?

CN: My main focus now is to perform my own compositions. I play here and I plan to tour with my Latin jazz trio in Japan. 

Chiemi Nakai on the web:

Contact Chiemi and order Transformation by writing to her at:

Review of Transformation at All About Jazz: Chiemi Nakai: Transformation

Like Chiemi's musician page on Facebook: Chiemi Nakai Latin Jazz Pianist

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