Dancer In Nowhere (Sunnyside)

Miho Hazama

Released February 8, 2019

Grammy Nominee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album 2020

New York Times Best Jazz Albums of 2019




Hailed by veteran jazz journalist Dan Ouellette as “a vital young artist who is delivering a singular style of music steeped in a variety of idioms,” composer and bandleader Miho Hazama leads her boundlessly creative 13-piece m_unit in its third triumphant offering, Dancing in Nowhere. “Her music is complex, teeming with unexpected twists and jolting turns as well as pockets of frenzy that lead into wonder,” remarked Ouellette, assessing a growing body of work that includes the 2013 m_unit debut Journey to Journey and the 2015 follow-up Time River.
Now, quickly on the heels of The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, Hazama’s Thelonious Monk-themed collaboration with the Metropole Orkest Big Band, m_unit brings another fresh slate of original works to life, with a stellar core lineup and guests on the order of guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Nate Wood (Kneebody). The album was produced by former m_unit alto saxophonist Cam Collins (now thriving in a new role after throat problems sidelined him as a player).
A Tokyo native, Manhattan School of Music graduate and winner of the BMI Jazz Workshop’s prestigious Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize and Manny Albam Commission in 2015, Hazama is regarded by fellow New York bandleaders as a pillar of the burgeoning big band scene. She is active as a mentor to composers including Marike van Dijk, Anna Webber and Jihye Lee, among many others. She is also a conductor for ensembles besides her own, mainly through her work as curator of The Jazz Gallery Composers Showcase, offering a platform for bands such as Brian Krock’s Big Heart Machine, Terraza Big Band and more. She is Associate Director of The New York Jazzharmonic, and has taken off in Europe as well: in addition to Metropole Orkest she has pursued collaborations with the Danish Radio Big Band and the WDR Big Band — opportunities that have involved work with Marilyn Mazur and Theo Bleckmann, among other major artists.
As for her own group, Hazama is fond of the ambiguity that a band name like m_unit affords. “I didn’t want to say ‘orchestra,’” she declares. “I wanted to open the door for more flexibility. I can call it a collective, or a unit, and that allows me to involve people I want to work with at a given moment.”
Dancer in Nowhere, as a title, suggests another kind of ambiguity as well. The closing title track, written specifically with drum juggernaut Nate Wood in mind, relates to dancing in the mental rather than physical sense: “There are times when you feel something, but you can’t really describe it in words,” says Hazama. “You don’t know how you’re going react to that feeling, and maybe you can’t really express it, but you feel it so strongly inside. I started wondering if I could somehow describe this through music. Not necessarily a struggle or something negative: it could be happiness, fear, passion, energy. The challenge of capturing these things became a theme for me.”
Citing everyone from Ravel, Respighi and Leonard Bernstein to such jazz mentors as Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza and Jim McNeely as influences, Hazama summons a spellbinding array of harmonic moods, tonal colors and rhythmic conceptions as she marshals her forces. On Dancing in Nowhere we hear the contrasting tenor sax voices of Ryoji Ihara and Jason Rigby, the scintillating pianism of Billy Test and the trumpet of Jonathan Powell, as well as the subtle vibraphone timbres of James Shipp (whose role Hazama compares to that of a timpanist). Steve Wilson’s inspired alto flights on the rousing “RUN” and the uptempo “Il Paradiso del Blues” provide just the right element of fire and risk.
“Somnambulent” is the piece that won Hazama the BMI competition in 2015. With Kavita Shah’s eerie wordless vocals and a lacerating electric guitar solo by Lionel Loueke in the final section, it stands out for its dark hues and imaginative, slowly unfolding arc. And as on her previous efforts, Hazama also includes one non-original piece, nodding this time to one of her major classical influences, John Williams, with a deconstructed take on his 1984 “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”: “There are so many small phrases or motives in the piece, all very catchy, and they’re such great ingredients to cook with. I listed all the motives, I think eight in total, and I made a kind of map, trying to use them all in some way.”
At every step, Hazama and the group bear out the high praise offered by New York Music Daily: “Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her.” 

Track Listing:

1. Today, Not Today (Miho Hazama) soloists: James Shipp, Jonathan Powell 8:03

2. The Cyclic Number (Miho Hazama) soloists: Atsuki Yoshida, Jake Goldbas, Ryoji Ihara, Sam Anning 8:02

3. RUN (Miho Hazama) soloists: Ryoji Ihara, Steve Wilson 7:06

4. Somnambulant (Miho Hazama) soloists: Jason Rigby, Lionel Loueke 9:44

5. Il Paradiso Del Blues (Miho Hazama) soloists: Andrew Gutauskas, Steve Wilson 8:56

6. Magyar Dance (Miho Hazama) soloists: Billy Test, Jonathan Powell 8:06

7. Olympic Fanfare And Theme (John Williams) soloists: Adam Unsworth, Andrew Gutauskas, Atsuki Yoshida, Billy Test, Ryoji Ihara, Steve Wilson, Tomoko Akaboshi 6:08

8. Dancer In Nowhere (Miho Hazama) soloists: Jason Rigby, Nate Wood 8:38


Miho Hazama: conductor, composer
Steve Wilson: alto, soprano sax, flute
Ryoji Ihara: tenor sax, clarinet, flute
Jason Rigby: tenor sax, clarinet (4 & 8)
Andrew Gutauskas: baritone sax, bass clarinet
Jonathan Powell: trumpet, flugelhorn
Adam Unsworth: French horn
Tomato Akeboshi: violin
Sita Chay: violin
Atsugi Yoshida: viola
Meaghan Burke: cello
James Shipp: vibraphone, guiro, shekere
Billy Test: piano
Sam Anning: bass
Jake Goldbas: drums
Kavita Shah: voice (4 & 6)
Lionel Loueke: guitar (4)
Nate Wood: drums (8)

Recorded on August 22 & 23, 2018 at Sound on Sound Studios, NJ, USA

Producer: Hiroaki G Muramatsu, Masu H. Masuyama

Recorded, Edited and Mixed by Brian Montgomery

Assistant Engineer At Sound On Sound: Mike Rachlin

Mastered by Gene Paul, Joel Kerr

Photography by Hiroyuki Seo

Art Direction, Design – Taiji Kuroda

Executive-Producer: Miho Hazama


Every moment of Miho Hazama’s Dancer In Nowhere seems intended for full emotional impact—there isn’t one throw-away on this meticulously crafted recording. As a composer, she maximizes the sound and scope of each of the 13 instruments in her experimental ensemble—a standard rhythm section, a cluster of horns, an array of strings—collectively called m_unit. And as a conductor, she makes sure that each sound gets its own hearing as it cycles into prominence through the kaleidoscopic changes in her compositions. That said, there’s nothing overblown about the recording: Hazama’s compositions are as economical as they are lush—a tricky balance.

The “nowhere” part of the album title refers to the composer’s intent to channel intense, abstract notions into musical realities. To achieve this, she usually opens with a simple declarative melodic statement that serves as the departure point for the exploratory gambit that ensues. On “Somnambulant,” Hazama’s winning bid for the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in the 2015 BMI Jazz Workshop, she establishes the main motif in a lone, luminous vocal line (Kavita Shah) before the rhythm (Jake Goldbas) and the saxophone (Jason Rigby) enter, pulling listeners into a suspenseful, ever-deepening harmonic montage. Even with its always-morphing roadmap, the piece does contain two big turnabouts: a wailing, bluesy electric guitar solo (Lionel Loueke) and a sweeping final cadence in the strings—no voice, no sax, no guitar, no drums. Remarkable.

One of the reasons Hazama’s compositions work as well as they do is her strict attention to dynamics that facilitate mood shifts. On “Today, Not Today,” the simple, syncopated opening sets up an expectation for a laid-back groove. But as the strings enter, and the vibes (James Shipp) ratchet up, and the trumpet (Jonathan Powell) begins to soar, a denouement into a full-throttle finish seems not only apt, but necessary. In contrast, on the title cut, the last track on the album, the sweetly repeating melody takes on added urgency as Hazama leads her band through several cycles of increasing harmonic and rhythmic complexity—this time to a welcomed soft close.

Some of Hazama’s pieces here are closer to what we’ve come to expect from the big band sound, with a ringing high hat or dominant horn section. Composer John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare And Theme,” the only cover on the album, and “Il Paradiso Del Blues,” an impressive showcase for Hazama’s horn arranging skills, both fit into this slot, though just narrowly. Even on these, Hazama finds a way to twist the tune to her advantage—and the listener’s surprise.

Suzanne Lorge (DownBeat)