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.