By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Downbeat magazine recently named jazz violinist Tomoko Omura one of its Rising Star Violinists for the fifth year in a row. Her new album, Branches Vol. 1 (Outside in Music), was inspired by Japanese folktales. It solidifies her reputation as a gifted composer and passionate instrumentalist. “I hope that, through the lens of contemporary jazz music,” she says of the recording, “the listener is transported to the world of Japanese sounds and moods.” Strings asked Omura about the origin of this intriguing project.
What prompted you to record Branches Vol. 1?
After finishing Roots in 2015, I was inspired to record more music combining my Japanese heritage and contemporary jazz. But unlike Roots, which used pre-existing Japanese songs, I wanted to compose original melodies. The melodies and arrangements are written borrowing elements from traditional Japanese scales and the mood of traditional Japanese folklore.
Tell me about the fairytales upon which it is based.
There are three Japanese folktale–inspired pieces on Branches Vol. 1. The first, “Three Magic Charms,” is a sort of horror story about a young apprentice in a mountain temple. He wanted to go chestnut picking, but the monk told him that there was a witch—Oni-baba—on the mountain and that he shouldn’t go. The boy didn’t listen. The monk handed him three magic charms to protect him if something happened.
In the mountains, the boy met a nice old woman who fed him well and he fell asleep. It turned out that the woman was Oni-baba and he was about to be eaten! The boy said he needed to go to the bathroom, so Oni-baba tied his foot with a rope and let him go to the toilet. While Oni-baba was banging on the toilet door and screaming, “Boy! Haven’t you finished yet?” the boy put one of the magic charms around the rope and escaped. In the meantime, the magic charm was answering to Oni-baba’s calls in the boy’s voice, saying “Not yet.” Musically, Oni-baba’s knocking on the door is heard in the rhythm of the bass line.
The second, “Revenge of the Rabbit,” is inspired by “Kachi Kachi Yama.” There was an evil raccoon who tricked an old woman, made soup out of her, then had her husband eat the soup! Then, there came a rabbit who heard the man’s crying about the incident, and told the man that he would get revenge for the evil deeds. The rabbit befriended the raccoon, tricked him, and took revenge in three different ways. In my song, the three instrumental solos are dedicated to each revenge the rabbit takes.
The third fairytale is “Princess Kaguya,” and the song I wrote for it is “Return to the Moon.” It’s about a baby girl who was found in a bamboo tree by an old man. She was cherished by the man and his wife and became a beautiful woman. Five princes and even the emperor wanted to marry her, but she refused. She began to spend a lot of time looking at the moon, longingly. The family realizes that Kaguya is not of this world, and that she must someday return to the moon. Knowing that once she returns to the moon she will lose all of her memories from earth, she writes letters of farewell to her friends and family before she departs with a celestial entourage who come to collect her.
How did these fragments fit together to create a cohesive work? What binds them musically?
Each song is quite different from one another but are all related to Japanese culture. Musically, too, I put Japanese elements in all of the compositions. For example, “Moonlight in Vermont,” which opens the album, is a well-known jazz standard, but it is not well known that the lyrics are a haiku, which is a form of ancient traditional Japanese poetry that arranges three lines in the syllabic rhythm 5-7-5. For the arrangement, I created a “haiku vamp,” using the 5-7-5 rhythm.
Tell me more about the Japanese musical influences.
It’s different on each tune. I mentioned “Moonlight in Vermont” and the haiku. And on “Revenge of the Rabbit,” for example, the melody is all based on the Japanese traditional scale Miyako-bushi (Mi-Fa-La-Ti-Do), shifting keys throughout. Another example would be the harmony of “Three Magic Charms,” which is also derived from the Miyako-bushi scale.
How much is improvised and how much is composed?
It’s mostly improvised. Most of the compositions here take similar forms to the traditional jazz form: Head melody in and out, and in between them there are improvised solos based on the harmonic progression of the melody, or sometimes a separate progression that I wrote with chord symbols. Intros and outros are sometimes added and improvised around, and their lengths are also flexible. Some bass lines are written, but most are up to the bass player. Piano and guitar voicings are also mostly up to the pianist and guitarist, and there are usually no specific drum charts.
How extensively do you use special effects and extended technique?
Not so extensively. I use special effects when it feels right at the moment. I try not to overdo it. I want to use them musically. It is fun, though.
How long did you work on the recording?
I’ve been working on this material since I finished Roots in 2015. And the Roots quintet has been performing mostly in New York City since then, trying new ideas and developing sounds together. It’s a long process, but when I perform live, I learn lots of things and get inspired by lots of new ideas. The recording itself took two days—six hours each day. We recorded 12 tracks; it was a live recording with the quintet and no overdubs. The other six tracks will be released as Vol. 2 sometime [in 2021].
How does Branches fit in with the Roots project?
It’s developing in a few interesting directions. Just like branches. I like storytelling in music that takes us somewhere else while listening. Also, for me, re-discovering the Japanese musical elements and using them in new ways is a fun thing to do. It’s still an ongoing project, and I’m already thinking about where it can go next.