Jazz Concert Review: MIHO HAZAMA & M_UNIT (Tour at Samueli Hall, Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa)

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by William C. on November 7, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Regional,Tours


Grammy-nominated composer/performer/arranger Miho Hazama and her 13-piece jazz chamber orchestra m_unit landed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts on October 28, 2023, kicking off the U.S. West Coast Tour showing off her vibrant new album celebrating the 10-year anniversary of her ensemble, m_unit: Beyond Orbits. Adding about six minutes to the album’s run time of sixty-four minutes, Hazama showed off her meticulous nature, reflective of a musical genius who demonstrates a broad sense of style and an adept ability to move in and out of styles seamlessly in her compositions.

The ensemble opened with “Abeam,” a bombastic composition which weaved a tapestry of sonic scenescapes that transformed the quiet Samueli Theatre into the busy traffic of Manhattan. The best description for the work is ‘well-controlled chaos,’ a fitting characterization for the entire concert. The band was incredibly tight as it navigated the contrasting themes of interlocking winds and a lush big band tutti, with both thematic subjects set in 7. On piano, Billy Test turned in a virtuosic solo on a bed of lush strings anchored by an ever-constant sizzling of the hi-hat.

Challenging the listeners into a deeper boisterous traffic jam that is Hazama’s vision for “Abeam,” Jonathan Powell on the trumpet broke into a squealing solo to add to the ever-increasingly busy narrative. Drummer Jared Schonig got his moment of fame as he closed out this opening number with a celebratory drum break that ended with a loud screech from the band.

Hazama has collected an excellent ensemble of fantastic, crafty musicians. It is a contrasting auditory experience that gives the semblance of being disjointed. Still, with careful examination and listening, one can make out the meticulous Swiss Watch precision in each flowing line that this unconventional ensemble hits together, led by the very firm and poised conducting of Miho Hazama herself. Unlike the bombastic conducting of a Latin Jazz Orchestra or the strange dance-like movements of new music conductors, Hazama led in a way that is closer to Classical music maestros. She is precise and clean and gives just enough gestures to shape the music while keeping the ensemble together in the ever-shifting time signatures of her works.

Hazama introduced “A Monk in Ascending and Descending” as a composition inspired by M.C. Escher’s lithograph bearing the name Ascending and Descending. Much like the confined and mesmerizing experience of viewing the optical illusions of Escher, “A Monk in Ascending and Descending” wavers between rhythmic combinations in 5 with cleverly constructed melodic lines that invoke Escher’s sense of uneven and disquieting quality. Much like the monks in the painting — and perhaps as a tribute to Thelonious Monk as well — the path of the melody takes an upward and downward shape in constant contrasting motion, the kind of music that I imagine Will Shortz, The New York Times puzzle guru, would get excited by as he edits the weekly Sunday crossword.

The thesis of the program is the three-movement Exoplanet Suite. Hazama introduced the work as inspired by her escapist dream of leaving behind our planet, plagued by so many problems. The resulting sound is a collage of experiences. In Hazama’s vision, our exoplanets sound like a mixture of Gustavo Holst’s The Planets mixed in with a West Coast cool jazz sound. In “Exoplanet Suite I. Elliptical Orbit,” the work provided a perfect bed for some excellent solos from Jonathan Powell (trumpet), James Shipp (vibes), and a crafty and delicious solo from bassist Edward Pérez. “Exoplanet Suite II. Three Sunlights” is where the supportive strings formed lush chords and solos. The modal melody opening gave just enough hint of Joe Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli film scores. In this quiet middle movement, Mr. Test’s piano provided a glittery solo in duet with the incredible Matt Consul on viola. The lines gave way to a particularly fluttery alto sax solo by Ethan Helm. This particular movement was perhaps my favorite number on the program. It wasn’t the most declamatory nor austere in Hazama’s creative thesis, but movement II of the suite is the most balanced orchestration in the program. The flowing melody and solos painted a vision of an everlasting cornucopia of abundance.

Closing the Exoplanet Suite, “III. Planet Nine” was a joyride of Powell’s trumpet solo and Helm’s alto sax over an ostinato of a 12-beat rhythm cycle. The lush strings broke to lend that retro vibe from the ’50s and ’60s space-age jazz. And, true to her stylistic inclination, the composition wrapped up in a delightful contrapuntal idea of punchy rhythmic hits with a flurry of activity.

A relatively quiet celebration closed the set with “From Life Comes Beauty,” another Hazama original. A delightful trumpet/horn duet with the strings carried into a J-pop-style melody that gave a rather delicious denouement to the evening. A pensive viola melody — later passed to the soulful saxophone — stood out against the evening’s mixed-metered, math-y music. Helm took the band out on his soaring solo over a bed of Debussy-esque strings. A divine way to close out the program; it truly warmed my heart.

The encore of Hazama’s arrangement of “Can’t Hide Love” paid tribute to her young love of Earth, Wind & Fire. The tasteful arrangement again featured the excellent Mr. Consul on viola.

As a listener, I was blown away by the artistry demonstrated by this group of veteran performers. Miho Hazama and m_unit is a fresh sound here in Southern California. Hazama’s creations are the kind of music that I hope will reignite the imaginations of music lovers everywhere. As live attendance for shows continues to decline, Segerstrom answered the call to find a fresh voice to present, thus elevating it as an attraction to lure patrons back to their seats.

Miho Hazama & m_unit
reviewed at Samueli Hall, Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, October 28, 2023
to get Beyond Orbits, visit Edition Records
tour continues; for dates and cities visit Miho Hazama

Miho Hazama, conductor, composer, arranger
Jonathan Powell, trumpet
Adam Unsworth, French horn
Ethan Helm, alto sax, flute
Jason Rigby, tenor sax, clarinet
Garrett Wingfield, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Tomoko Akaboshi, violin
Ben Russell, violin
Matt Consul, viola
Meaghan Burke, cello
Billy Test, piano
James Shipp, vibraphone
Edward Pérez, bass
Jared Schonig, drums

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