Spanish Jazz, from Korean American Maureen Choi

Maureen Choi (Photo by Kyeongmin Park for Voices of NY)

Korean-American violinist Maureen Choi is about to bring her crossover Spanish and Latin jazz to audiences in New York.  Her quartet is on a U.S. tour now, after having been invited by the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in East Lansing, Michigan. Although Choi has performed in NYC before, she says it’s “special” to perform here, where she once lived for a time before moving to Spain. The Maureen Choi Quartet’s jazz music, infused with flamenco and folkloric notes, consists of both original compositions by Choi as well as arrangements of traditional Spanish and Latin American jazz pieces.

The quartet, scheduled to appear at the ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn on June 28 and at Terraza 7 in Queens on July 1, will draw on music in its second album, “Ida y Vuelta” (“Roundtrip” in Spanish).

Maureen Choi, 34, the composer and violinist of the quartet, discovered the wonders of jazz during a jazz lesson she took by chance with Rodney Whitaker, a famous double bassist, when she was a senior at Michigan State University. At the time, she was majoring in classical violin, and was planning to go on to get her master’s degree in classical violin. But the introduction to jazz gave her a sense of freedom via improvisation. Very soon, she fell in love with jazz, and she decided after a year and a half of consideration to switch gears and study jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was there that she met Madrid-born Mario Carrillo, who eventually became her husband, as well as the double bassist in her quartet. Other members of the quartet are pianist Daniel Garcia Diego, from Salamanca, Spain, and drummer Borja Barrueta from Bilbao, Spain.

After Choi began her studies at Berklee, she pursued an old hobby, ballroom dancing, which gave her a deeper understanding of Latin music and its rhythm. She also formed friendships with many students from Latin America who eventually asked her to play music at their concerts from time to time. The more she played, the more requests she got. It became natural for her to play Latin and Spanish music. One day, Choi realized that Latin and Spanish melodies always emerged whenever she composed a piece.

Choi, who was born in the U.S. and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says that her parents, who immigrated from Korea, influenced her musically. Her father worked at Samsung and played Latin guitar at home, while her mother was a soprano who had taught singing in Korea. At home, music was a mainstay.  Says Choi: “My house was filled with music and I still remember talking about Spain [with my parents].”

For Choi, serendipity was at work: “I never planned it really, because dancing was for fun, the violin is my job, but it became one thing.”

She currently lives in Madrid and teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Valencia as well as at the Escuela de la Música Creativa in Madrid. She expressed her desire to investigate more connections between Spanish and Latin music, which is in ¾ time like in Spain. “Music in Spain is very rich because many Spanish-speaking immigrants [from Latin America] live there, just like in New York… one of the most beautiful things about being a musician is that you will never finish. You can study always and that’s not enough.”

Being Korean American, Choi said, has also informed her music-making.

“I love the diversity and being able to say that I appreciate all cultures. I am obviously very proud to be Korean American but I am also curious about how other people live and think. We have too much to learn from each other so it is such a privilege to learn about other cultures through music.”

Kyeongmin Park is an intern at Voices of NY.

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