Live review

Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra at Birdland, NYC

Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra in 2018

Photo by Kazushi Udagawa from miggymigiwa.net

Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra 

(Birdland NYC. 5 May 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

It’s a full house on a rainy spring evening, with a crowd agitating to see a rare live gathering of  Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra at Birdland. The venue is something of a home base for Migiwa Miyajima, having marked the start of recording in 2017 for her first US big band album Colorful, and returning in 2018 to launch it. Miyajima, the self-trained pianist at the heart of the project, leads her 17-piece ensemble through her original compositions – interspersed with reworked traditional songs – to produce a vibrant, rich, intellectual accomplished set.


Arriving in New York can be overwhelming, and arriving at a Miggy gig is, too. Opening track Captain Miggy’s Age of Discovery is a muscular piece documenting her turbulent first year in the city. A funky piece – reflecting both senses of the word – running from slow eerie drawn-out horns to well-balanced screaming brass, with an improvisational tussle between Carl Maraghi’s baritone sax and Jason Jackson’s trombone played over an undercurrent of light, bright keys.

Skip ahead five years and Welcome to New York is a more informed tongue-in-cheek critique, delving into the vagaries of an incomprehensible mass transit service, and the aural and olfactory sensory overload and zoological curiosities of the streets. The first half feels like a less-macabre version of Jean Shepherd on Mingus’ The Clown, before it slips into an ode to the chaos and abrasiveness of a deeply lovable city, with Pete McCann wailing away on guitar.

The technical adventure on show in the spoken word and orchestral snippets bleeds into The Hi Hat Man, a special challenge for drummer Jared Schonig to wring interest out of using only the humble hi hat (lifted and presented, for clarity, to the audience like the shopping channel). This was a fascinating piece, not a gimmick but a genuine spark of creativity using defined constraints to produce minimalist outcomes, like a haiku. The product was a realignment of the backline, with  Evan Gregor‘s bass as the narrative text and the hi hat as punctuation. Finally presented with an unusual treat – a cymbal solo. The rhythmic rolls, rings, snaps, stutters, taps and shuffles were testament both to Miyajima’s vision and Schonig’s execution.

Much of the set drew on reflections on Miyajima’s home – a very evocative, sort of ‘Journal of Japan’ to Evans and Davis’ Sketches of Spain. Re-workings of traditional Japanese pieces, like Kono Michi, drew out a haunting flugelhorn solo from Matt Holman with sumptuous chords, and rumbling deep bass clarinet dropping out the bottom, or rhythmic layered horn arrangements and light piccolo melodies from Ben Kono. But there were also original compositions, such as Hope from Hope on the post-Tōhoku earthquake recovery with David Smith’s tortuous tormented trumpet solo, and Alejandro Aviles’ spirited light soprano sax resolution, or the stifled outrage of Sam Dillon’s tenor scream, set over subtle bubbling orchestration and delicate – commenting on a woman’s position in a patriarchal society on Unspoken-Invisible.

This desire to bring change is reflected in the title track of the album, Colorful, written in the days after the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” may have gathered for Trump in 2016. The piece is a celebration of being different; a celebration of how Miyajima has experienced the US, as a place where everyone can feel accepted. This proactive, vocal side has come forward in Miyajima’s organising work – as co-founder of communities which promote Female Japanese Jazz composers (NYJWJC), and jazz composers worldwide (Composers’ Mosaic). These can be challenging things to address successfully, perhaps demonstrated by how the line-up of Miggy’s Augmented Orchestra itself under-represents women and people of color compared to the NYC population it plays in.

Over the course of the set Miyajima demonstrated many times over her ability as a composer, bandleader, and pianist. However what may be unique to her is her clarity in condensing the spirit of her compositions and arrangements into brief descriptions to share with the audience. In a few sentences the source of the piece is unveiled, and then we are left tracing and unravelling that thought through the work. It is an enriching additional layer on top of what is already an exciting Big Band project.

Categories: Live review

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