Does that famous picture of Bach, sourly holding a piece of paper, look more sour than usual lately?
He must have gotten a “Dear Johann” letter from violinist Maureen Choi, playing East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival 7 p.m. Friday.
The mercurial, muscular Latin jazz violinist is a good musician to have in your corner, but alas, there’s only one of her. While studying violin at MSU, Choi was firmly on the path of classical music, but she kept running into jazz studies director Rodney Whitaker, one of the most charismatic performers and persuasive guys around.
Kalamazoo-born Choi’s path was pretty clear up to that point. Her father, an avid music lover and classical guitarist, played music in the house all day and even made mix tapes to play in the car. Her mother, a soprano who studied in Vienna, had students coming to the house all the time.
She was almost done with her studies at MSU and had already applied to study classical violin in Minnesota. Whitaker kept asking her to take one of his jazz classes.
“I’m like, ‘No, I’m busy practicing my Bach,’” she said.
Whitaker told her that she was a jazz musician, but she just didn’t know it yet. She was already having fun hanging out with jazz students at concerts and in the halls of the music building.
“I thought, ‘What the hell, might as well take the class,’” she said.
Zwing. “I was literally addicted to jazz,” she said. “I felt so liberated. I was playing from my heart, and nobody was telling me what to play.”
After much internal debate, she decided to pursue jazz seriously. She got a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where a second musical door opened.
In Boston, Choi spent her nights salsa dancing “to blow off steam” after practicing all day. She was a ballet dancer as a child and still loves to dance. At school and in the clubs, she met students from Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela who introduced her to a new world of musical forms and styles.
Her passions began to blur together.
She started playing Latin gigs, bringing her classical chops, jazz improvisation skills and deep feeling for dance.
Soon she was scoring gigs with salsa king, bandleader and all-around champion of Latin music, Larry Harlow, in New York, Florida and Boston.
“It wasn’t something I had to think hard about,” she said. “It just kind of flowed, and it was very natural.”
Now she lives in Madrid and can’t get over the musical and geographical diversity of Spain. Flamenco music, she said, is only one color in a vast mosaic.
“It’s like the California of Europe,” she said. “The north is completely green and lush and very European. The south, where flamenco was born, is very, dry, hot, desert-like, and the tempo is completely different.”
Choi’s first CD, with Whitaker and pianist Rick Roe, sticks largely to jazz standards, but her second CD, “Ida y Vuelta,” takes the full plunge into the music of the Spanish diaspora, from Spain across the ocean and southward through Latin America.
In East Lansing, she’ll play music from “Ida y Vuelta” and new compositions that point to more sophisticated, surprising forms of musical fusion.
“We’re arranging a couple of pieces from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’ with a flamenco twist,” she said. “I’m tying every aspect of who I am and everything that I love and bringing it out in my quartet.”
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