BY TAMMY SCILEPPI
Queens is where many jazz greats rose to fame, and where “cultural mixology” has been perfected.
So, you can understand why a Korean American violinist with a passion for jazz, who lives and teaches in Spain, would get that musical and emotional tug – pulling her back here to perform for a local audience, after traveling around the world to the tune of 500-plus gigs (just in the last couple of years).
You could say that Maureen Choi, 36, and her award-winning Spanish Chamber Jazz quartet – now on tour with her new album – have turned traditional jazz on its head. Always improvising, they have created an exciting and unexpected, genre-breaking sound: Call it a cultural mix of traditional Spanish music (think flamenco, but on violin) and American jazz improv traditions.
You’ll get a feel for it when you experience an evening of refreshing riffs at Terraza 7 in Elmhurst (40-19 Gleane St.) this Saturday at 9 p.m. ($15 cover charge; FREE admission for kids 12 and under).
Choi takes the audience on an amazing emotional journey through her violin.
“My compositions have evolved and pushed the band to explore different territories,” she said, adding, “I write all the music for my projects and I feel that composing my own pieces is fundamental to not only the sound of my band, but the growth as a musician individually and collectively.
“I often compose on the piano to compose melodies and outline the harmony, but they really take shape when they are performed with my band members.”
The entire quartet has a very strong classical background and furthered their higher education in jazz. All four have performed all over Spain (where they all live) and across the U.S., and will continue touring in China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan later this year.
Choi’s latest album, “Theia” (her second), came out in March. “The music that I compose and perform is really a reflection of who I am as a person and all of my interests musically and personally. ‘Theia’ really displays my true voice as a musician and captures the essence of Maureen Choi Quartet,” she explained.
The album’s fifth track, “Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza),” is an homage to one of the greatest musicians in recent Spanish history, Paco de Lucia.
“Paco de Lucia is a symbol of excellence for me. He was such a perfectionist and used his artistry to push the boundaries of flamenco,” Choi said. “His timing is impeccable and his technique on the guitar is unparalleled. He is a true ‘maestro’ artistically, musically and technically.”
That tune is structured around a flamenco rhythm called bulerias, a complex, twelve-beat pattern that is uniquely difficult to master. Figuring that rhythm out was a huge challenge, according to Choi who stated, “I didn’t have another violinist to look to – nobody has done this sort of thing with the violin before. So, I had to figure it out myself.”
“Theia” reflects the violinist’s love for all things Spain.
“This October marks the seventh year of me living in Madrid. I absolutely love living in Spain. The weather is amazing, the people are so kind, and I feel extremely safe there,” Choi shared. “The quality of life there in general is very high and the Spanish culture teaches me to take things a bit slower and to appreciate life, enjoying the small things.
“Living abroad automatically forces you to look at the world a bit differently. I feel so grateful to be constantly challenging my comfort level and stretching my perspective on how people are and why.”
The recording artist grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, playing the violin and piano, and dancing ballet. “I used to live in New York. My closest friends live in New York and my sister teaches and lives in Brooklyn,” Choi noted. “I worked on Broadway, while performing with my quartet in Queens, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx.”
The improv violinist, who is inspired by jazz musicians Regina Carter, Rodney Whitaker, Johnny O’Neal and Tigran Hamasyan, said, “What jazz means to me, is freedom of expression and evolution. That is what draws me to the tradition of jazz.
“Jazz is always marking and reflecting ‘what is going on’ historically and politically, and I not only find that interesting but fundamental to society and humanity as a whole.”
The quartet is planning a return trip to New York in March 2020.