Sometimes it sounds like violinist Maureen Choi has lived a totally charmed life: She gets to focus on the things she loves, as her mother encouraged to do at an early age. These days that means living in Madrid, performing internationally, teaching at Berklee College of Music in Spain and releasing her second CD, Ida y Vuelta (BarC).
But the journey wasn’t always easy. The eldest daughter of Korean immigrants, at a young age Maureen was charged with caring for her younger sisters and managing the household while her newly single mother worked 12-plus hour days. The rigorous schedule and responsibilities led the violinist to question her devotion to the instrument she’d had under her chin since she was 2 1/2 years old.
She stopped her intense daily practice, quit school and worked a series of retail and food service gigs. After a five-year hiatus, Maureen earned her GED and resumed music studies at Michigan State University.
“I quit between 15 and 20, which is a huge developmental stage,” she explains. “When I picked up the violin again and started college at 21, my playing was so behind, I wasn’t first chair anymore. I stayed up until 4 a.m. practicing to get back in shape.”
She was firmly ensconced in the classical curriculum when Rodney Whitaker, MSU’s director of jazz studies, urged her to sign up for some classes in his department. “Rodney put the jazz bug in my ear,” Maureen recalls. The respected veteran bassist, who has worked with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Pat Metheny, Jimmy Heath, Regina Carter and dozens of others, told the violinist, “You’re a jazzer, you just don’t know it yet.”
Eventually, Maureen took his word for it. “I started jazz classes and felt a liberation I never felt in classical,” she marvels. “Because of the harmonies of the standards, it wasn’t so hard to improvise over them. I heard things and I could float on top; that’s how I got hooked.”
Maureen also explored Spanish music, from the classical repertoire to the Latin music she loves dancing to. “I’m not comfortable calling myself a Latin jazz musician,” she explains, describing her style as “Spanish folkloric.”
“People automatically associate Spanish music with flamenco. I play some rhythms from southern Spain, but also northern. I see a connection with Venezuelan music. I’m interested in the roots and connections of Latin and Spanish music, that’s intriguing. There’s such a range of technique and expression. I have to use a lot of classical technique playing the music of the Spanish diaspora.”
The title of her CD, Ida y Vuelta, translates to “going and coming back,” which Maureen says is a common phrase in the flamenco world, describing how someone returns home from their travels and plays whatever they’ve learned while living abroad. “I picked that name because it resembles my life.”
Hear it for yourself when the Maureen Choi Quartet celebrates the release of Ida y Vuelta at ShapeShifter Lab June 28 and at Terraza 7 in Queens, July 1.