J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 16, 2008

J.B. Spins Interview with TOMOKO

Today J.B. Spins inaugurates an occasional interview feature of emerging jazz artists, by immediately breaking format. I first heard TOMOKO sing at St. Peter’s, but strictly speaking, she is more of a soul and R&B vocalist. Her recent high-profile gigs include a booking at the Blue Note. To get a sense of her music, watch her video “Love Me” on youtube here.

JB: How familiar were you with New York before you moved from Osaka? How difficult was that transition? Could it be called a leap of faith?

T: My very first visit to New York was a one-week trip about a year prior to eventually settling down here. Osaka people are brave and relentless. The first night I went straight to 125th Street—the Apollo theater—and went into the Amateur night, it happened to be Wednesday. They had a Step-Up-to-the Mic segment, so I raised my hand and sang a song by Monica (popular R&B tune then), and had a great response.

My mentality was always different, and when I came to New York, I felt like this was my real home. Yes, I can call it a leap of faith because until I got here, I really did not have any particular person or place or business plan to count on, not to mention having just few dollars in my pocket. But I have done all I could do in Japanese show business till that point, and I totally felt the need to break free and expand myself in New York in order to become an authentic artist of this genre. And after I did so, I realized this was my destiny.

JB: At your own gigs, you are essentially singing soul, but I have heard you perform in jazz contexts as well. Are you looking for opportunities to blend genre distinctions?

T: Such a timely question! I have always tried to present myself as an “R&B singer” only because our business requires and expects you to belong to one genre. It made me feel that it was important to declare my style and where I belong as an artist, and maybe it still is important. But in my opinion “rhythm and blues” lives in every musicians and singers hearts. And it has branched out of jazz, gospel, blues and rock, or maybe pop or even country music for that matter. And the branches have even expanded into hip hop.

I have always been a fan of all these genres, especially crossover jazz and smooth jazz, such as George Benson, Al Jarreau, Rachelle Ferrell, Anita Baker, George Duke, Natalie Cole, Sade, Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock, Lalah Hathaway, etc. And when my debut CD Organically Afro Asiatic released, so many people responded to what they called a “very jazzy smooth R&B feel.” So yes I recognize my niche, and am looking into the genre blending to some degree.

JB: The great jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon was the executive-producer of your CD. How did you first meet?

T: I met his younger brother who was at that time stationed in Navy in Tokyo, starting out as a rapper also, and we performed on the same stage at a hip hop showcase in Yokohama! He always told me about his big brother Wycliffe, and after I came to New York, I got to know him backstage, and the bond was instant and he treated me like family because of that.

He is very versatile. He's from Atlanta, his roots are also blues and R&B, and all that fusion. And you can say the same for my producer Jamba. Wycliffe is my executive producer along with me, but not on the creative side for this CD. But he did play trombone with other horn players on my tracks #1 and #4. And it was very natural to everyone not worrying about what particular genre we were playing. We were focusing on squeezing together a collection of tasty notes.

JB: To give readers a better sense of who you are, maybe we can close with your favorite CD, jazz CD, book, and film?

T: I honestly think that Stevie Wonder's trilogy: The Songs in the Key Of Life, Inner Visons, and Hotter Than July, are the best three albums in my collection, ever. My other favorite R&B CDs are gonna be difficult to narrow down.

First old school: Marvin Gaye’s What's Going On, Donny Hathaway (self titled), Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Cheryl Lynn (self titled), Earth Wind & Fire (I just can’t mention only one, just too many), Stylistics Greatest Love Hits, Isley Brothers' Groove with You.

New school: Black Street (self titled), Kipper Jones' Ordinary Story, Total (self titled), Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Raul Midon's State of Mind, Billy Porter’s Untitled, Freddie Jackson's Transitions And oh, do you know the CD by Phillip Bailey Soul on Jazz? This is what we are talking about—blending the two genre, such a great CD.

My favorite jazz CDs: Nina Simone’s Broadway Blues Ballads, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, George Benson's Breezin,' but I love all of his CDs. All of them! Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington's Great Summit: the Master Takes, and Dee Dee Bridgewater's Live in Paris. And I have copies of all my favorite albums of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan on cassette tapes.

Books: Conversations with God by Neal Donald Walsh, Ask and It is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle—the best book I have ever read!

Movies: All 6 films of Rocky series! Ultimate American Dream! And my most fav classic forever: The Way We Were!

JB: From a blogger known only by his initials, to the single-named TOMOKO (remember that’s all caps), thanks for taking the time to be the first interview here. You can often hear TOMOKO live in New York and you can purchase her CD here.

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