JAZZ pianist Satomi Yarimizo’s career has followed a path as winding as a complex solo, but there’s been a constant theme: overcoming challenges with hard work.
In discussing her life, the phrases "I wasn’t ready" and "I worked really hard" pop up frequently. She "wasn’t ready" to debut at Ward’s Rafters in 2004, but she worked for two weeks on the one piece she would play. It led to return appearances, invitations to other events and a gig at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki. She "wasn’t ready" for that either, but worked hard to expand her repertoire beyond the "five or six pieces" she then knew.
Now she carries a couple of thick songbooks to Chuck’s every Sunday or Monday night, ready to play just about anything in them. It’s the same thing Saturday nights at the Dragon Upstairs, a downtown nightspot, where she appears with her quartet.
In fact, Satomi — as she is known on stage — has become a central figure in Honolulu’s jazz scene. She and her band have turned the Dragon Upstairs into a venue of choice for accomplished musicians, whether based locally, on the mainland or even overseas.
SATOMI YARIMIZO QUARTET
Satomi Yarimizo, Reggie Padilla, Shawn Conley, Shinya Yarimizo
Where: The Dragon Upstairs, 1038 Nuuanu Ave.
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow and July 31
Cost: $10 cover
Info: 526-1411, dragonupstairs.com
COMING UP: Shows are 9 p.m. at The Dragon Upstairs
A jazz, pop and hip-hop collaboration with saxophonist Aaron Holbrook, singer/song- writer Emi Meyer, hip-hop artist Shing02 and the Satomi Yarimizo quartet
Where: Gordon Biersh, Aloha Tower
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 23
Cost: No cover
"We’re just lucky to have her here and it’s great to see her doing so well," said lawyer Chuck Crumpton, a frequent patron who has followed the music scene here for 40 years. "She’s very respected, very well-liked and much appreciated. She’s put so much into developing the music scene here, not only her time, but her money and promotional work. And her playing, especially the last two, three years, has improved tremendously."
A few jazz musicians have started their careers late in life — Wes Montgomery taught himself guitar at age 18 — but few could match Yarimizo’s late-blooming path. The native of Japan took music lessons starting at age 3, but majored in English literature in college. Rather than take a "safe" corporate job at Sony or Toyota, she went to work as an instructor for a company that imported computer products to Japan.
"I learned everything in business, and I’m doing the same thing in music," she said.
Her computer job led her to Hawaii to work on the CGI film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." It also introduced her to Shinya Yarimizo, whom she would marry. The film, however, didn’t do well, and their jobs ended. Fortunately, Shinya landed another high-tech job and the couple was able to stay here.
"I had a lot of time, so I started to practice piano," Yarimizo said. "For one year, I just practiced by myself, and took piano lessons."
In 2004, her friend Joe DiStefano, a computer science professor and saxophonist, was visiting and had a gig at Rafters.
"I asked him, ‘Can I play a song with you?’" she recalled. "I was not ready at that time, so we practiced two weeks together, only one song. … I was really bad, and he taught me how to play jazz. He was really patient."
They played at Ward’s Rafters and, buoyed by that experience, she kept at it. Lacking formal training in jazz fundamentals, it was not easy. "I practiced every day, morning to night, for six hours, seven hours, for six months," Yarimizo said. "After six months, sounds — jazz! My playing really sounds like jazz! … So sometimes I start to sit in again, play one or two songs, and ( become) disappointed, so then I go back and practice two more months."
She met Tiger Okoshi, a jazz hornist on the faculty of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and attended his five-week intensive course in jazz theory there. In an e-mail, Okoshi described her raw talent and how it has developed: "Her improvisation knowledge (and) jazz vocabularies were very limited and … her rhythmic strength and variety was not there yet.
"Since she left Berklee … I have recognized her improvement quickly. She is a very positive musician who has a great sense of musical direction of her own."
YARIMIZO had been sitting in at Chuck’s about a year when Dragon Upstairs owner Hank Taufaaau hired her for Thursday nights. But she was almost "fired" because of small crowds.
It was then that her business acumen became as sharp as her staccato at the keyboard. She called friends, made fliers, used her e-mail list, anything to get an audience. "I tell them ‘Please, this might be my last week.’"
The people came, Taufaaau eventually came around, and now credits her for all she has done. "Without Satomi, many of the jazz enthusiasts making the scene in Hawaii would be in limbo," he said. "She is a tireless promoter of everyone, no matter how new they are to the scene. … Virtually every noted jazz musician visiting Hawaii from around the world has played at the Dragon Upstairs because of Satomi." (See box for artists visiting in August.)
Yarimizo uses the Internet to bring jazz talent to the islands.
"They contact me on Facebook," she said. "I look at their video. Sometimes I think, ‘not so good,’ but others, I want to bring them here."
Yarimizo said she benefits from working with visiting artists, who often stay with her and Shinya in their elegant Maunawili Valley home. "It’s very important to work with other good musicians," she said. "That’s how I learn."
She especially praises her quartet, which features Reggie Padilla on sax, Shawn Conley on bass and Shinya on percussion; and a quintet she formed, Bop Tribal, which in addition to Padilla and Conley features DeShannon Higa on horns and Abe Ligramas on percussion. She calls them a "dream team."
Bop Tribal’s debut CD, produced in 2008, got a four-star rating from Downbeat magazine, a preliminary nomination for a Grammy and a Hawaii Music Award.
Typically, Yarimizo said she "wasn’t ready" to do the album. But the woman who just might be the hardest-working jazz artist in Hawaii drops a bit of her usual modesty when she talks about the end result.
"When it was finished," she said, "I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’"