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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Latin Jazz Trio at Somethin' Jazz
Chiemi Nakai on the web: www.chieminakainy.com
Contact Chiemi and order Transformation by writing to her at: email@example.com.
Review of Transformation at All About Jazz: Chiemi Nakai: Transformation
Like Chiemi's musician page on Facebook: Chiemi Nakai Latin Jazz Pianist