Take one part classical nuance, stir in the improvisation and freedom of exploratory jazz, sprinkle a heaping dose of Spanish musical traditions on top, and what do you get? The gorgeous, sprawling, emotive chamber jazz of the Maureen Choi Quartet, of course.
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, violinist Choi began training on the violin at a very young age, but was exposed to more than just classical music from the start; at home, her father played Spanish guitar all the time.
"Without even realizing, I was always intrigued by the sounds of Spain," Choi says. It's no wonder that she ended up in Spain six years ago, where she has lived ever since.
Now she's on tour, which brings her to Cliff Bell's and Kerrytown Concert House in support of her newest album, Theia — her third overall, and second with this group, which includes Mario Carrillo on bass, Michael Olivera on drums, and Daniel García on piano.
Theia draws on both Greek mythology (a Titaness and mother of many gods, including moon goddess Selene) and astronomy (a planet that collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago, resulting in a cloud of debris that formed the moon). This adds yet another folkloric layer to music that is already a stunning blend of the fantastical with the introspective.
"This album is kind of an open diary for me," Choi says. In her life leading up to the release of the album, she experienced some personal difficulties. For her, the title of Theia is a perfect encapsulation of the idea that challenges can be overcome, tragedy can be transformed into beauty, and life goes on.
"It's also [about] the synergy between the different elements of the band members. [The music] always serves a greater purpose," she says. Opening track "Phoenix Borealis" captures the essence of the album in many ways, with a delicate melody that explodes into disarray before winding down with a revival of the tranquility that started it all.
"Each song has many moving parts," Choi says. "It's not just the melody, then improvising over the song, the melody again, then it's over. It's not like that. Every song has its own story. Theia definitely resembles a lot of the growth of the band, together but also as individuals."
Choi's own personal growth has been an interesting path. After displaying perfect pitch to her parents at age 3 (the phone rang and she told her mom that it was A, which her mother didn't believe until she played it on the piano), Choi began seriously playing the instrument, taking advantage of Ann Arbor's public school music education and eventually winning competitions left and right.
She studied classical violin intensely, with the idea that she might someday be a professional soloist or obtain a permanent seat in an orchestra. But was she playing the violin because she wanted to, or because it had been a part of her life for such a long time? As she began to contemplate her future, she wondered about this more and more.
"I love orchestra and I have so much respect for orchestra musicians, but I just didn't see myself in that world," Choi says. So she took a break. "I had to figure out if I was doing it because it was my choice or because it [had been] under my chin since I was 3."
During the time that she quit, she pursued many other interests, including medicine and psychology. But every single time she meandered down a different path of study, she ended up returning to the violin.
Enough was enough. Violin was in her blood. She went to Michigan State and began studying under director of jazz studies and internationally renowned bassist Rodney Whitaker, who opened her up to the jazz scene. The violin, to her, was no longer just an orchestral instrument. With this different stylistic direction, Choi found her singular way.
"The years of quitting were very important, not only to discover who I was as a person but to realize that music was my life," Choi says. "The most important thing was realizing who I was and what I wanted. After that, it was easier to make decisions."
The songs on Theia are a tremendous tribute to her commitment to pursue the music that she loves: passionate and moving, as melancholic as they are upbeat, a cultural cocktail of classically influenced jazz with vibrant Latin rhythms coursing through the veins of the melodies. One can imagine these songs as the score to a beautifully starlit night sky, the backdrop to one's emotional journey through the trials of the night into the blazing, sun-filled harmonic morning.
The Maureen Choi Quartet performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19 at Cliff Bell's; 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543; cliffbells.com. Tickets are $10. The quartet also performs at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 23 at Kerrytown Concert House; 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-769-2999; kerrytownconcerthouse.com. Tickets are $10-30.