Miho Hazama m_unit: Dancer In Nowhere Hailed by veteran jazz journalist Dan Ouellette as “a vital young artist who is delivering a singular style of music steeped in a variety of idioms,” composer and bandleader Miho Hazama leads her boundlessly creative 13-piece m_unit in its third triumphant offering, Dancing in Nowhere. “Her music is complex, teeming with unexpected twists and jolting turns as well as pockets of frenzy that lead into wonder,” remarked Ouellette, assessing a growing body of work that includes the 2013 m_unit debut Journey to Journey and the 2015 follow-up Time River.
Now, quickly on the heels of The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, Hazama’s Thelonious Monk-themed collaboration with the Metropole Orkest Big Band, m_unit brings another fresh slate of original works to life, with a stellar core lineup and guests on the order of guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Nate Wood (Kneebody). The album was produced by former m_unit alto saxophonist Cam Collins (now thriving in a new role after throat problems sidelined him as a player).
A Tokyo native, Manhattan School of Music graduate and winner of the BMI Jazz Workshop’s prestigious Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize and Manny Albam Commission in 2015, Hazama is regarded by fellow New York bandleaders as a pillar of the burgeoning big band scene. She is active as a mentor to composers including Marike van Dijk, Anna Webber and Jihye Lee, among many others. She is also a conductor for ensembles besides her own, mainly through her work as curator of The Jazz Gallery Composers Showcase, offering a platform for bands such as Brian Krock’s Big Heart Machine, Terraza Big Band and more. She is Associate Director of The New York Jazzharmonic, and has taken off in Europe as well: in addition to Metropole Orkest she has pursued collaborations with the Danish Radio Big Band and the WDR Big Band — opportunities that have involved work with Marilyn Mazur and Theo Bleckmann, among other major artists.
As for her own group, Hazama is fond of the ambiguity that a band name like m_unit affords. “I didn’t want to say ‘orchestra,’” she declares. “I wanted to open the door for more flexibility. I can call it a collective, or a unit, and that allows me to involve people I want to work with at a given moment.”
Dancer in Nowhere, as a title, suggests another kind of ambiguity as well. The closing title track, written specifically with drum juggernaut Nate Wood in mind, relates to dancing in the mental rather than physical sense: “There are times when you feel something, but you can’t really describe it in words,” says Hazama. “You don’t know how you’re going react to that feeling, and maybe you can’t really express it, but you feel it so strongly inside. I started wondering if I could somehow describe this through music. Not necessarily a struggle or something negative: it could be happiness, fear, passion, energy. The challenge of capturing these things became a theme for me.”
Citing everyone from Ravel, Respighi and Leonard Bernstein to such jazz mentors as Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza and Jim McNeely as influences, Hazama summons a spellbinding array of harmonic moods, tonal colors and rhythmic conceptions as she marshals her forces. On Dancing in Nowhere we hear the contrasting tenor sax voices of Ryoji Ihara and Jason Rigby, the scintillating pianism of Billy Test and the trumpet of Jonathan Powell, as well as the subtle vibraphone timbres of James Shipp (whose role Hazama compares to that of a timpanist). Steve Wilson’s inspired alto flights on the rousing “RUN” and the uptempo “Il Paradiso del Blues” provide just the right element of fire and risk.
“Somnambulent” is the piece that won Hazama the BMI competition in 2015. With Kavita Shah’s eerie wordless vocals and a lacerating electric guitar solo by Lionel Loueke in the final section, it stands out for its dark hues and imaginative, slowly unfolding arc. And as on her previous efforts, Hazama also includes one non-original piece, nodding this time to one of her major classical influences, John Williams, with a deconstructed take on his 1984 “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”: “There are so many small phrases or motives in the piece, all very catchy, and they’re such great ingredients to cook with. I listed all the motives, I think eight in total, and I made a kind of map, trying to use them all in some way.”
At every step, Hazama and the group bear out the high praise offered by New York Music Daily: “Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her.”