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Why is a Harlem Kid Screamin' “Let My People Go!?”

"‘When do we get to eat?' Our guests have just one question, not four. I have to tell them to eat something before if you don't want to be starving staring at a shank bone and parsley while we read for two hours,” says sopranos saxophonist Sam Newsome about the Passover seder at his residence in Harlem. His wife, violinist Meg Okura converted to Judaism four years ago after touring with the band Pharaoh’s Daughter for over a decade. And every year, their Afro-Asian Jewish American daughter sings “Go Down Moses” crescendoing into the part “Let my people go!”


New York, New York - “Exodus and Emancipation” is one of the tracks from NPO TRIO LIVE AT THE STONE album, a debut album by the NPO Trio (Sam Newsome on sopranos saxophone, Jean-Michel Pilc on piano, and Meg Okura on the violin) to be released on March 15 from Chant Records, a newly established avant-garde, and world music label. The music is entirely improvisational and was recorded at a live performance during Meg Okura’s week-long residency at the STONE in the East Village in April 2016. The trio occasionally references familiar Yiddish melodies such as “Oyfn Pripetchik” or “Mine Yiddishe Mama” to even John Coltrane. NPO Trio expresses many emotions and speaks many languages-jazz and classical, Romantic to Atonal, blues to free jazz.

But the mixing of musical idioms is something that Okura has long been doing. Elliot Simon of the New York City Jazz Record wrote: “Meg Okura and The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble have no peer in melding classical and jazz within an ethnically informed chamber setting”. Since the founding in 2006, the PACJE has released three albums to critical acclaim, and on Mother’s Day, Okura will release IMA IMA, the PACJE’s fourth album, as a celebration of motherhood and dedication to her Grandmother who passed away during the production of the album. Okura used Ima Ima (“mom” in Hebrew and “now” in Japanese) as a musical platform for exploring her new Jewish faith, her Japanese heritage, her passion for jazz, and love for family.

Okura first became intrigued with a large chamber jazz ensemble after touring with the Michael Brecker Quindectet, directed by Gil Goldstein, then later with Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn, which she was nominated for a Grammy. Joined by illustrious trumpeter Tom Harrell and Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi, this newly expanded ten-piece orchestra explores a wide range of sonorities with Riza Printup on harp, Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Anne Drummond on flutes, Sam Sadigursky on bass clarinet, Brian Marsella on piano, Pablo Aslan on bass, and Jared Schonig on drums.

Giving up much of her upbringing, by choosing America over Japan, Judaism over Christianity, and jazz over classical, Okura says “I want people to see beyond our skin colors and just listen more.” She even went so far as making the album cover into an optical illusion. To see the masked title, you must physically change your perspectives. “My Torah portion “Re’eh” (from her Bat Mitzvah last summer) means “see” in the imperative form. And according to the Bible commentator Rashi, we must “see” in the condition that we listen. Jazz is about listening to each other, and I believe in jazz,” says Okura.

So close your eyes, sit back and listen, while Okura and her two multi-cultural ensembles take you from the East to the West and back again with their haunting melodies, exotic rhythms, and riveting performances.


"the NPO Trio offers truly original and creative solutions of the Klezmer melodies to the listeners. ...Live at The Stone will attract people with many different tastes." - Leonid Auskern, JAZZ QUAD


Lydia Liebman

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