Miles Okazaki is an American musician working with many of the leaders of today’s creative music scene. His approach to the guitar is described by the New York Times as “utterly contemporary, free from the expectations of what it means to play a guitar in a group setting — not just in jazz, but any kind.”
Trickster was released on Pi Recordings in 2017 to great acclaim, called “a brilliant individual statement” and “a mature work for the ages” by Pop Matters (best of 2017), ” “a true concept album” by the Wall Street Journal, and “an expression of deep, systemic intrigue” by the New York times. Trickster made best of 2017 lists on Pop Matters and the Los Angeles Times, and was an Editor’s Pick at both Downbeat and JazzTimes. The album features Craig Taborn on Piano, Anthony Tidd on Bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Recent performances have included Matt Mitchell on piano.
Trickster is Okazaki’s fourth album of original compositions. His first project Mirror was released independently and received a “Critics Pick” in the New York Times, calling it “a work of sustained collectivity as well as deep intricacy.” He expanded to a septet for his second album Generations, described by pianist Vijay Iyer “the sonic equivalent of Escher or Borges, but with real emotional heft”. His third album Figurations was recorded live with a quartet, and was a New York Times top ten album of 2012, described by Ben Ratliff as “slowly evolving puzzles of brilliant jazz logic.”
As a sideman, Okazaki works in many areas, ranging from Standard repertoire to experimental music. He has been most widely seen as the guitarist for saxophonist Steve Coleman from 2009 to 2017. In recent years, he has worked with a variety of artists including Kenny Barron, Steve Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Amir El Saffar, Adam Rudolph, Dan Weiss, Aka Moon, Linda Oh, Darcy James Argue, Jane Monheit, Vijay Iyer, Francois Moutin, Doug Hammond, Carl Allen, Ohad Talmor, Mary Halvorson, John Zorn, Jen Shyu, Mark Giuliana, Patrick Cornelius, Rajna Swaminathan, Matt Mitchell, Craig Taborn, Tony Moreno, Ben Wendel, Donny McCaslin, and many others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
“a brilliant individual statement” – Pop Matters “The Best Jazz of 2017”
“immersive, groove-heavy and ultimately immediate” – Los Angeles Times “Best of 2017”
“an expression of deep, systemic intrigue” – New York Times (live performance review)
“a mature work for the ages.” – Pop Matters
“glorious braids of melody.” – Pitchfork
“a true concept album” – The Wall Street Journal
“tenacious futurism” – New York Times (live performance review)
individual and distinct imagery” – Bandcamp “Best New Jazz”
“a real breakthrough.” – JazzTimes “Editor’s Pick”
“an intellectually hefty album that feels weightless” – Downbeat “Editor’s Pick”
“beguiling new quartet album” – WBGO
“a new reflection of the music’s roots in jazz, funk and blues” – The Los Angeles Times
“autoridad y convicción” – El Intruso
“un disco sorprendente” – All About Jazz Italy
“une musique intense et colorée – Jazz Magazine (France)
“complex and grooving . . . ★★★★“ – Downbeat
“latticework of bouncy rhythms” – Financial Times
“new forms of expression” – JazzScene
“ferocious forward momentum” – Textura
“an eruptive guitarist” – Stereogum
“precision oriented approach” – AllAboutJazz:
“elaborate, internally rhyming forms” – NYC Jazz Record
“both adventurous and accessible” – Improvised
“elaborate layers of sound that intrigue and astound.” – JazzTrail:
“Play it loud . . . you can dance to it!” – Step Tempest
Miles Okazaki – Guitar
Craig Taborn – Piano
Anthony Tidd – Bass
Sean Rickman – Drums
1. Kudzu 5:21
2. Mischief 3:24
3. Box in a Box 5:47
4. Eating Earth 6:43
5. Black Bolt 2:42
6. The West 3:46
7. The Calendar 9:16
8. Caduceus 6:41
9. Borderland 1:07
Trickster is guitarist Miles Okazaki’s first album in five years and his much anticipated debut on Pi Recordings, having been featured on six other releases in the label’s catalog in groups led by Steve Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, and Dan Weiss, along with associations with other Pi artists such as Matt Mitchell, Jen Shyu, and Amir ElSaffar. Perhaps best-known as a member of Steve Coleman and Five Elements, with whom he has played for the last eight years, Okazaki has also built a solid reputation for himself as one of the most adventurous composers and guitarists on the current scene. The New York Times says of Okazaki, “Even by the standard of his hyper-literate post-bop peer group, Mr. Okazaki is an unusually calculating musical thinker,” and as a guitarist, “exceedingly skilled with a head for rhythmic convolution.”
Originally from Port Townsend, Washington, Okazaki began playing classical guitar at age six, and was playing regular gigs on electric guitar by age fourteen. He moved to New York after graduating from Harvard University (he also holds degrees from Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School) to pursue a career in music. His teacher on guitar at the time was Rodney Jones, who got Okazaki’s career in motion by recommending him for early gigs with Stanley Turrentine, Lenny Pickett, Regina Carter, and studio session work. He has received many awards as a guitarist including placing second in the 2005 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Okazaki spent four years on the road with vocalist Jane Monheit and became known as an expert vocal accompanist, but he also started to develop an experimental streak in his own music. His first album as a leader, Mirror (2006), received a “Critics Pick” in the New York Times, who called it “a work of sustained collectivity as well as deep intricacy.” His second album, Generations (2009), was described by pianist Vijay Iyer in Artforum as “the sonic equivalent of Escher or Borges, but with real emotional heft.” His next album, Figurations, was selected as one of the New York Times top ten albums of 2012, described by Ben Ratliff as “slowly evolving puzzles of brilliant jazz logic.”
Okazaki subsequently entered a period of focused guitar study, which resulted in the book Fundamentals of Guitar, published by Mel Bay in 2015. When he began to compose again, he went at it from a fresh perspective, placing greater emphasis on guitar playing and improvisation. Steve Coleman describes Okazaki’s development during this period: “Miles has always been a very intense cat. I’ve always been impressed with his perseverance and how deep he gets into his research. When he first came to me years ago, all he wanted to talk about was conceptual stuff, but now that he’s internalized it, it just comes out organically. You can really hear that in his playing now.” For his new music, Okazaki decided to use Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums, the long-running rhythmic engine and his bandmates in Steve Coleman and Five Elements, with whom he has performed with hundreds of times. It’s a fascinating opportunity to hear their unique chemistry — the quicksilver ability to process and internalize complex information, transform musical material through improvisation, and do it all while staying “in the pocket” — in a wholly different context. Both Tidd and Rickman have deep roots in funk, R&B, and hip hop, and it is fascinating to hear Okazaki’s music through the filter of these musical sensibilities. Okazaki’s next call went to pianist Craig Taborn, perhaps the most widely-admired pianist on the cutting-edge of jazz, who brings a supremely inventive musical sense to everything he plays. Together they have created a breakthrough statement by Okazaki, a unified book of compositions that grooves from beginning to end.
Trickster was originally inspired by Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World. As Okazaki describes it, “The trickster figure is an ancient archetype in human folklore. They are creative in nature, using mischief and magic to disrupt the state of things, breaking taboos and conventions, opening doorways. They exist outside of the mainstream, working from the margins, creating movement across the borders. They cause damage and they heal. They are storytellers and improvisers.” He specifically chose the stories of Eshu, Raven, Krishna, Heyoka, Thoth, and Hermes, with their themes of mischief, disguise, paradox, chaos, illusion, and balance as the basis of musical structures and improvisations. One can get a sense of the trickster narratives by following the rhythms, which have many twists and turns and are not always what they seem to be. For example, “Box in a Box,” which tell a story of Raven, a trickster from the native peoples of the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, in which he disguises himself as a child to steal the light of the world that is hidden in the center of an infinite number of nested boxes. The composition works at this feeling of continual unboxing through a number of musical devices: rotating all-interval tetrachords, their intersection with symmetrical melodies, a perpetually shape-shifting bassline, an illusory drum figure. This machinery all fits into a conventional, square-shaped musical form. In “Eating Earth,” which comes from the Indian tale of Krishna, whose mother asked to look in his mouth when he was accused of eating dirt, only to see the entire universe inside. She even sees herself looking into her son’s mouth — the whole contained within the part. In this composition, each instrument floats through time at different speeds, colliding and combining into sonic constellations, never forming the same shape twice. This method of disguising intricate compositional machinery in a relaxed, earthy rhythmic flow has become Okazaki’s newfound style.
Another inspiration for the music comes from the Japanese art of origami, in which all models are made by folding a single uncut square of paper. According to Okazaki, “I’ve always believed in the idea that working within constraints focuses creativity, sharpens technique, and ultimately leads to greater freedom than having no boundaries at all. The central challenge of origami is to create new forms from one basic shape. All of the compositions on this album are contained within simple shapes – 12 or 16 bars of 4/4 or 3/4. But this fact is largely disguised by various rhythmic illusions and internal ‘folds’ within the form.” His folded models of fox and raven, two trickster animals, appear on the album cover. The back cover shows the papers after the models are unfolded, revealing their internal geometry in a pattern of creases that has a beauty of their own. The music on Trickster is designed to encourage risk-taking. There are many traps and deceptions, but navigating through these spaces open possibility of discovering new territory. Craig Taborn addresses this idea: “You have to give it up to a trickster. You have to engage with this chaotic element where you really don’t know how it may go. And not only that, trickster deities are very neutral, they don’t really care. That energy doesn’t want you to win or not win. It can go either way, but you have to propitiate it and engage with it, hoping for some kind of beneficial or positive outcome. But you have to be willing to flow with the other thing too, and that’s what it takes to really improvise.”
“We constantly distinguish – right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead – and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.”
– Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art
The trickster figure is an ancient archetype in human folklore. Tricksters are creative in nature, using mischief and magic to disrupt the state of things, breaking taboos and conventions, opening doorways. They exist outside of the mainstream, working from the margins, creating movement across the borders. They cause damage and they heal. They are storytellers and improvisers. Because these ideas resonate with my approach to music-making, it occurred to me that the trickster could be a fertile theme for a new book of compositions. As I began my research, I looked for themes that seemed musical in nature, translating them into compositions for quartet. My main concern was that the musicians focus on testing the limits of each composition through improvisation, with the sensibility of storytelling in mind. The listener can get a sense of the trickster narratives by following the rhythms, which have many twists and turns and are not always what they seem to be.
About the music:
Kudzu is a type of rapidly growing vine that covers structures and trees, creating the giant alien leaf sculptures often seen on the side of the highway. This song is an introduction, inviting the audience to follow a winding, slippery path into the wilderness.
Mischief is inspired by the African deity Eshu (Eleguá in Cuba and Exu in Brazil, honored at the opening of ceremonies, rituals, performances). In one story, he wears a hat that is half red and half black, causing two neighbors to argue about its true color. The confusion over this teaches some lessons about context and ways of knowing. Different people will hear the playful rhythm of this song differently: none are wrong, but none are completely right, either.
Box in a Box considers the labors of Raven, a trickster from the native peoples of the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest. Raven disguises himself as a child to steal the light of the world, which is hidden in the center of an infinite number of nested boxes. The composition works at this feeling of continual unboxing through a number of musical devices: rotating all-interval tetrachords, their intersection with symmetrical melodies, a perpetually shape-shifting bassline, an illusory drum figure. This machinery all fits into a conventional, square-shaped musical form.
Eating Earth comes from the Indian tale of Krishna, whose mother asked to look in his mouth when he was accused of eating dirt, only to see the entire universe inside. She even sees herself looking into her son’s mouth — the whole contained within the part. In this composition, each instrument floats through time at different speeds, colliding and combining into sonic constellations, never forming the same shape twice. The melodic material comes from four interlocking complementary hexachords. The piano improvisation guides us through.
Black Bolt is a brief interlude, a fractured song where twelve tones are separated into four triads, and the regular drum groove is broken into a series of jagged phrases.
The West is a passing storm, featuring the drums. The Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk received a vision from the thunder beings of the West, which allowed him act as heyoka, a sacred clown. Depictions of heyokas often show them holding sticks to beat out thunder on the drums. Black Elk describes the heyoka ceremony, where “everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping” [from John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks]
The Calendar is a song about celestial movements, and comes from the story of the Egyptian god Thoth, a trickster who beat the Moon in a game of dice. The Moon owned 360 days, and Thoth won 1/72 of them. He then added these five days to the original 360 to make a 365 day calendar. The Moon lost some of its light, and was forced to wax and wane. This composition draws on these numbers for its form, along with the ancient Babylonian calendar, which is built on the conjunction of 235 lunar months and 19 solar years. In this song, mutating harmonies wax and wane through all 19 configurations of three notes, moving by only one pitch at a time.
Caduceus is the staff carried by the Greek trickster Hermes. As an infant, he created a lyre out of a tortoise and hypnotized Apollo with his improvisations, convincing him to trade his caduceus for the instrument. To test the magical power of the staff, Hermes threw it between two fighting serpents who then wound themselves around it in harmony and balance. This song is made from multiple melodies in counterpoint winding around a central axis, where the improvisational challenge involves navigating across the borders of intersecting spaces.
Borderland is the threshold, the doorway out, the liminal space that we pass through before moving on. The composition is a short rhythmic canon for solo guitar.
About the Artwork:
In origami, all models are made by folding a single uncut square of paper. The central challenge is to create new forms from this basic shape. When the paper is unfolded, the architecture for the model is revealed in a pattern of creases that has a beauty of its own. All of the compositions on this album are contained within simple shapes – 12 or 16 bars of 4/4 or 3/4. But this fact is largely disguised by various rhythmic illusions and internal “folds” within the form. I’ve always believed in the idea that working within constraints focuses creativity, sharpens technique, and ultimately leads to greater freedom than having no boundaries at all. I wanted to make an image with this concept in mind, so I found instructions for two trickster animals, fox and raven, and slowly learned how to make the required folds. They appear in conversation on the cover, and the back cover shows the unfolded figures with their internal geometry exposed.
– Miles Okazaki
Produced by Miles Okazaki
Executive Producers: Seth Rosner, Yulun Wang, and M-Base Concepts, Inc.
Recorded January 14-15, 2016 by Joe Marciano and Max Ross;
and mastered by Michael Marciano at Systems Two Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY
Mixed by Anthony Tidd at TidbiT Sonos, Philadelphia, PA
Folding and cover photo by Miles Okazaki Fox design by John Montroll Raven design by Quentin Trollip Package design by Miles Okazaki Band photo by Dimitri Louis
All compositions by Miles Okazaki
© 2017 Salish Sea Music, SESAC