Interview: Abe Lagrimas, Jr. talks music, working with taiko players, and his new album

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

Abe Lagrimas, Jr. (photo by Greg Hatton)

I recently had a fun conversation with Abe Lagrimas, Jr., a Los Angeles-based musician, composer, educator, and author. Abe and I have been working for the past several years as members of On Ensemble and it's always a pleasure to share the stage together. He is an outstanding musician who plays drums, vibraphone, and ukulele, and consistently adds color and spark to elevate the music. Audiences love his technical flair, yet as a bandmate I truly appreciate Abe's fine-tuned ear and his flexibility to instantly adapt to any situation. He makes any band sound better and it's no surprise to learn that he is very much in high demand. In addition to On Ensemble, Abe and I have worked extensively with the preeminent taiko artist Kenny Endo. It's always interesting for me to chat with musicians with similar points of view, and as a jazz musician, Abe had some very insightful observations about working with taiko players. It would be wonderful if everyone shared such an open and forward-thinking mindset about art, culture, and everyday life. This conversation also contains more humorous bits than usual, reflecting Abe's easygoing personality.

The interview features music from Abe's fantastic new self-titled album. The excerpted tracks are: Alternate Route, Sunday Dance, Nu'uanu Mist, End Of The Road, and Tanimoto. The album features a great group of musicians playing Abe's jazz-leaning original compositions, expressing a nice balance of varying feels, tempos, and moods. The links for the CD and digital download are below, and I highly recommend you check them out. Abe's website is also worth visiting to learn about upcoming shows, find his previous albums, and sign up for his newsletter. 


Abe Lagrimas, Jr. is a musician, composer, educator, and author who plays the drums, vibraphone, ukulele, and studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. In 2012, he competed in the highly prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition and has worked with many artists such as Eric Marienthal, Eric Reed, Kamasi Washington, Dontae Winslow, Barbara Morrison, Michelle Coltrane, Jake Shimabukuro, Kenny Endo, and continues to be an in-demand session musician in Los Angeles. 

As a solo ukulele artist, Abe is a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award recipient and has released multiple albums in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Abe has been featured at ukulele festivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Reno, Chicago, New York, and Hawaii. His international performances include Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Great Britain, and toured extensively throughout China having performed in twelve cities. 

Abe is also an educator and has authored the first ever ukulele curriculum for instrumental music programs in schools titled “Ukulele Ensemble, Beginning Ukulele - Level 1”published by Consonus Music Institute. His latest book "Jazz Ukulele: Comping, Soloing, Chord Melodies" (Berklee Press & Hal Leonard) is available in stores worldwide and on Amazon.

A recap of my 5-state Midwest teaching tour

Ho Etsu Taiko in Chicago

Ho Etsu Taiko in Chicago

There are a lot of great things happening within the US Midwest taiko scene. My recent teaching tour took me through five states over a two-week period and each stop was full of positive energy and warm hospitality. I worked with groups which have existed for anywhere between a few years and thirty plus years, and it seems like the region is making more and more cross-state connections - hopefully planting the seeds for a future Midwest Taiko Gathering. I especially enjoyed seeing the various styles of each group and truly appreciated the heightened emphasis on musicality. Hopefully I'll be back soon!

 


Soten Taiko in Des Moines

Soten Taiko in Des Moines

My first stop was in Des Moines, Iowa to work with my friends at Soten Taiko. The members took me straight from the airport to the famous Zombie Burger where we enjoyed great burgers and shakes while completely surrounded by everything zombie. The fun continued during the shinobue private lesson (where I was shown 2 beautiful shishi gashira they perform with) and the Soten Taiko workshop covering ensemble playing concepts. Dinner was another peculiar place where pizza was topped with Chinese-restaurant dishes like beef stir-fry and crab rangoon, all surprisingly tasty. The next day I drove north to Minneapolis in a rental car after having a fantastic breakfast at the local French bakery where I had one of the best almond croissant in recent memory. Many thanks to Ben, Mary Jane, Amanda, Tanis, and all of the Soten Taiko members!


Edo Bayashi masterclass

Edo Bayashi masterclass

I was really looking forward to returning to Minneapolis where I first met the Mu Daiko team in 2005 when I traveled there as a member of the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. It was a blast seeing old photos from that time, reminding me of my initial admiration for Mu Daiko's wonderfully distinctive original compositions played at our joint concerts. This recent visit was organized by my friend Iris Shiraishi who is doing fantastic work with her projects Ensemble MA and TaikoAlive. While it was fun teaching workshops on intermediate shinobue and small drum technique, I was particularly thrilled to lead an Edo Bayashi masterclass for the class Iris runs. She and some other members have a history of studying with Kyosuke Suzuki sensei, and this session served as preparation for his visit in August following the North American Taiko Conference. It was also inspiring to get private lesson requests for shinobue, atarigane, and Edo Bayashi – things I would like to see more of out there. Happily there was some free time to check out a nice brewery, a good coffee roaster, and even a fantastic little drum shop that makes their own line of drums called Northeast drum co. I played the walnut mini kit and was shocked at how good it sounded. Thank you so much to Iris, Alex, Arlene, and all of the Ensemble MA and Mu Daiko members for the warm and enthusiastic hospitality!

Small drum technique

Small drum technique

Intermediate shinobue

Intermediate shinobue

The Drum Loft

The Drum Loft

Urban Growler Brewing

Urban Growler Brewing


My next stop, Ho Etsu Taiko in Chicago, was the originator of this tour. My interview with artistic director Jason Matsumoto covers how we met, including the newly-released joint live album with On Ensemble recorded a year and a half ago. Ho Etsu is one of my favorite groups not only because the members are a joy to hang out with but also because they are creating interesting original material that fits the group's style and vision. It's exciting to think of the possibilities to come from their forward motion, and absolutely Ho Etsu is a group we should be keeping an eye on. In addition to workshops on small drum technique and Edo Bayashi, we took some pieces from the repertoire and explored ways to make the music speak with more clarity and artistic intension. Among the many great meals, the unusual beers at Forbidden Root were especially memorable. I also finally made the pilgrimage to the old Deagan building where I met Andres, the master tuner, repair technician, and owner of Century Mallet Instrument Service. As a Deagan vibraphone owner, I have ordered parts from them for many years, and visiting this historic place was just as incredible as I had imagined. A huge thank you to Jason, Johes, Midwest Buddhist Temple, and all of the Ho Etsu members for a remarkable time together!


Initially I had planned on driving to my next location of St. Louis, but Expedia informed me that I could fly there for less time and expense than driving a rental car. When nobody in Chicago or St. Louis had heard of the tiny airline called Air Choice One, I knew there was a chance for an adventure. It turned out fine – a leisurely flight on an eight-seat prop plane with five other passengers and two pilots a few feet away. It was a windy day, causing the little plane to blow around, but having so much visibility inside made it quite an enjoyable ride. This was my second time visiting St. Louis Osuwa Taiko and I was delighted to see their brand-new shishi gashira. We covered the taiko part for Edo Kotobuki Jishi on the first day and conducted a workshop called Pulse & Ensemble Playing on the second. This is one of the few groups where I can exchange stories and share experiences regarding the original Osuwa Daiko in Nagano, Japan. Although I never had the chance to meet Daihachi Oguchi sensei, I am friends with his grandson and current leader Makoto Yamamoto, having visited their historic location in Okaya as well as presented an Osuwa Daiko concert in Vancouver, BC. Before taking my afternoon flight, I was able to visit an interesting brewery called Urban Chestnut where a self-guided tour tells about the brewery's environmentally conscious operations. Thank you very much to Andrew, Soon, and everyone at St. Louis Osuwa Taiko!

My ride to St. Louis

My ride to St. Louis

Urban Chestnut Brewing

Urban Chestnut Brewing


Great Lakes Taiko Center

Great Lakes Taiko Center

My final stop was new for me – Great Lakes Taiko Center in Novi, Michigan. For several years I had been hearing from friends about Brian Sole and his taiko school located in this somewhat unexpected location. Having earned my undergraduate degree at Central Michigan University, I was familiar with the geography and knew there weren't many taiko players in the state when I lived there, which is why I was so impressed with how much Brian has done in a relatively short amount of time. From the nice studio and quality instruments to the large-scale annual concert and student recital featuring guest artists from Japan, everything is well organized and very professional. The school's community ensemble Go Daiko and Brian's professional group Raion Taiko seem to get steady work and deliver excellent performances. It was a pleasure to teach in the clean and quiet space with plenty of drums, huge mirrors, a powerful PA system, and notation for warm-up exercises posted on the walls. I admired how everyone participated in the workshops with full vigor, and I even witnessed the single most virtuosic note-taking display in my 20+ years of teaching. (Thank you Eileen!) I also taught private and group lessons on small drum technique, shinobue, and katsugi technique. There were many good meals including the famous Detroit style pizza at Buddy's, but Bento 39 (sankyu) was the place I was eager to try as I had heard about this unlikely little spot serving amazing Japanese comfort food. My katsu curry plate easily met my hyped-up expectations. An enormous thank you to Brian, Eileen, Jianin, and everyone at Great Lakes Taiko Center for making this marvelous visit happen!

Ji playing workshop

Ji playing workshop

Great Lakes Taiko Center

Great Lakes Taiko Center

Bento 39

Bento 39

Katsu curry

Katsu curry

Interview: Sumie Kaneko talks music, ma, and her new album

Sumie Kaneko - koto, shamisen, vocal artist

Sumie Kaneko - koto, shamisen, vocal artist

My first time meeting Sumie was also the first time we performed together, when she was a guest artist at On Ensemble's Sounds of LA concert at the Getty Center three years ago. I remember the music coming together quickly with only a few rehearsals thanks to Sumie's thorough preparation in learning the group's material as well as bringing well-written charts of her original pieces. The audience reception was enthusiastic and my favorite part of the collaboration was her clear and distinctive expression on koto, shamisen, and voice. Changing one member in a quartet makes a significant impact, and happily that first concert went very well and was a lot of fun. Since then, Sumie and I have shared the stage numerous times at On Ensemble and Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concerts.

In this conversation, Sumie talks about how she started playing koto at age 5 and the contrast between studying Japanese traditional music at Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) and majoring in jazz vocals at Berklee College of Music. We also talk about her two albums – J-Trad & More and the newly released Dead of the Night – which I would highly recommend everyone check out at the links below. This kind of uncategorizable music with diverse influences (Japanese classical and folk music, jazz, pop, samba) speaks to me because this perspective is familiar in my own music. Sumie kindly sent me three of her original tracks to incorporate into the interview: Maihana, Kaleidoscope, and Sublimate, Outcome. During our discussion about the touring life, Sumie memorably shares one of her secrets to help stay grounded during the constant changes on the road. She also talks about upcoming projects, and we even touched upon the inclusion of both of our pieces on the soon-to-be-released live album featuring Ho Etsu Taiko and On Ensemble.


Sumie Kaneko's new album Dead of the Night

Sumie Kaneko's new album Dead of the Night

Japanese Koto & Shamisen player and Jazz singer/songwriter Sumie (Sumi-é) Kaneko creates music that spans a millennium.  A master in the traditional repertoire of these ancient instruments, she has also pioneered their use in jazz and experimental music, through solo and group performances worldwide. 


Sumie began playing Koto at age 5, by the following year she was appearing on Japanese TV program at NHK. In 1995, she won the Takasaki International Competition in Koto performance. She studied Japanese traditional music at Tokyo National University of the Arts, and in 2006, studied Jazz vocal at Berklee College of Music. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Blue Note NY, TED talk, Regattabar, Getty Center, Boston Ballet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has also given workshops at Harvard University, MIT, Princeton University, Wellesley College and Berklee College of Music, among other institutions. In 2014, her group was invited to the Washington, DC Jazz Festival, which is co-sponsored by the Embassy of Japan.

She has collaborated with many world instrumentalists, such as Evan Ziporyn, Kenny Endo, and Kaoru Watanabe, as well as painters, dancers and calligraphers. She has toured internationally in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Jamaica with Japan Foundation, and every year since 2013 she is invited to Bangladesh, Pakistan and India from Embassy of Japan. In 2017 February, she returns to Japan Foundation’s JAILA program and on tour in Nicaragua and Guatemala with contemporary taiko group On Ensemble.


Interview: Jason Matsumoto talks taiko, his film project, collaboration, and the new CD

Last month Jason Matsumoto sat down with me to talk about his group Ho Etsu Taiko, recent projects, and upcoming events. The first time we worked together was in September 2015 when Ho Etsu invited On Ensemble to play a joint concert in Chicago. I enjoyed the collaboration and was immediately impressed with their organization, performance level, and new taiko compositions. Months after that show, Jason decided to release a CD of the live concert recording, and we talk about this in the interview.

We also talked in depth about Jason's current project as executive producer, a film called The Orange Story. This short film is about the internment of Japanese Americans and was created for students and educators with the goal of providing an entry point in discussing issues of race and discrimination. You can find out more about it through the links below.

Jason sent me two tracks from the new CD: Traveler (performed by Ho Etsu) and Parallax (performed by Ho Etsu and On Ensemble). I have added excerpts of this music in the interview. Please check out the links below to find out more about the release date and how to get your own copy.


Ho Etsu
www.hoetsu.org learn about our music, our mission and our history; newsletter sign up for CD news
www.facebook.com/hoetsutaiko follow us!

The Orange Story
www.theorangestory.wordpress.com learn more about the project
http://joom.ag/DKvQ "Hidden Histories" is a curated screening package that includes The Orange Story, this is the lookbook!
www.facebook.com/theorangestory follow us for related news stories and project updates
Chicago film premiere event December 2, 2016

Full Spectrum Features
www.fullspectrumfeatures.com

Jason Matsumoto is a fourth-generation Japanese American from Chicago.  He earned a business degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and spent one year in Japan as a study-abroad student attending Sophia University in Tokyo. By day, he is a director of pricing for financial derivative products at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. By passion, Matsumoto is the director and composer for Ho Etsu Taiko, a Chicago-based ensemble centered around Japanese drumming. Most recently, he has assumed the role of co-Producer for The Orange Story, a film project funded by the National Parks Service that aims to provide digital educational content about civil liberties as told through the lens of Japanese American incarceration during WWII. Matsumoto serves as Vice President of the Board of Full Spectrum Features, a Chicago-based 501(c)(3) production company committed to increasing diversity in the media arts and utilizing the power of cinema to educate the public about important social and cultural issues.

ShastaYama, an annual summer outdoor festival featuring taiko, music, dance

Shasta Taiko at ShastaYama 2009 (photo credit: Gary Ono)

Shasta Taiko at ShastaYama 2009 (photo credit: Gary Ono)

I am very excited to be performing at ShastaYama next month. I've been wanting to attend ever since becoming aware of this festival several years ago. Mt. Shasta is a unique place and an incredible setting for an outdoor music festival, complete with the dramatic backdrop of the mountain. The founders are Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer, both of whom are wonderful people and great artists. I asked 5 questions to my friend and bandmate Masato Baba for a special inside look at this year’s event.

ShastaYama
July 30, 2016 at 6 PM
Shastice Park - Mount Shasta, CA


Eien Hunter-Ishikawa shastayama onensemble poster flyer ticket

1. Can you describe ShastaYama?
ShastaYama was started in the city of Mt. Shasta in the summer of 2005.  My parents, Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer, wanted to create an outdoor taiko festival to bring people from around the area to enjoy a night of taiko and music.  They were supported by a long time friend and supporter, Mario Rubino, who acts as the co-producer of the show. 

2. What is the musical lineup this year?
This year On Ensemble are the headliners.  On Ensemble is a taiko-fusion group based in Los Angeles and features Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer's son, Masato Baba (me), and former student, Shoji Kameda.  The two of us grew up playing taiko together and after 32 years are still going strong.  Other members include Eien Hunter-Ishikawa, Abe Lagrimas, Jr, and Sumie Kaneko.  Together, they combine taiko with bamboo flutes, vibraphone, koto (Japanese zither), shamisen (Japanese banjo), western drum set, ukulele, and voice to create a unique, fresh sound.

Tadaima (Russel and Jeanne's jazz group featuring Gary Fitzgerald), Unit Souzou (featuring Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe), Shasta Taiko (Russel and Jeanne's taiko group), and a special guest group featuring Isaku Kageyama, Bruce Ghent, Joe Small, Yeeman Mui, and Heidi Chan will be featured as part of the program.

3. How can everyone learn more and get tickets?
Check out the website: shastayama.org 

4. What is your favorite part of ShastaYama?
My favorite part is performing and giving back to the area I grew up in.  Mt. Shasta is an amazing, spiritual place where I feel at peace.  The land, air, and water is as pure as it gets nowadays which I definitely took for granted when I was growing up there.  It holds a special place in my heart. 

5. Do you have any upcoming events you would like to mention?
On Ensemble is also taking part of Summer Sounds at the Hollywood Bowl from July 25-29.  The website says:  "Built on the pulsating beats of taiko drumming, the traditional music and instruments of Japan are blended with styles from the West in ways that will let your imagination soar." http://www.hollywoodbowl.com/tickets/summersounds-2016

Personally, I have a big event in Los Angeles with my other group, TAIKOPROJECT.  We are performing for the re-opening of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on July 8.  Collaborating with Grammy Award-winning Quetzal (a Chicano rock band), we are "exploring common musical ground to create a new sound that is quintessentially Los Angeles".
-This quote was taken from the Ford website: http://fordtheatres.org/en/events/details/id/1021


Masato Baba at ShastaYama 2012 (photo credit:  Karrie Ann Snure)

Masato Baba at ShastaYama 2012 (photo credit: Karrie Ann Snure)

Masato is considered one of America's most outstanding taiko talents. He began taiko training at the age of 6 when his parents, Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer, founded Shasta Taiko. As a member of Shasta Taiko, he gained the valuable experience performing, teaching, and touring throughout his formative years. Masato polished and refined his taiko skills for over 7 years touring world-wide with renowned American Taiko Master Kenny Endo. He also served as the Youth Director of Endo's Taiko Center of the Pacific based in Honolulu. Baba studied taiko in Japan with Nihon Taiko Dojo and fue (Japanese bamboo flute) with Kyosuke Suzuki of the Wakayama School. Masato Baba has emerged as one of the most respected taiko artists in America. He is a pivotal member of highly acclaimed ON Ensemble. Masato is an original member of TAIKOPROJECT, served as their Musical Director and is now the Artistic Director of the multimedia theater company. Maz also is the lead instructor for several Los Angeles based taiko groups. Baba was also the lead coordinator of the successful "World Taiko Gathering" held in Los Angeles in 2014. Baba was featured in the DVD "Spirit of Taiko," a history of American taiko that focuses on 3 American taiko generations represented by Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, Kenny Endo, and Masato Baba. Masato has performed at the 2009 Acadamy Awards, on The Voice, and with Alicia Keyes on "The X Factor”. Masato Baba is influencing and inspiring the growth of taiko, performing and conducting workshops across the country and around the world. With his parents, Masato is helping to establish and develop ShastaYama's growing reputation.