Much has been said of Maureen Choi’s mastery of the violin in recent years: “It is the new great voice of the jazz violin”; “She sings with her violin”; “She’s an incredible young talent”. Choi is a unique violinist who innately blends the virtuosity of classical music with improvisation and ...
Joyful Ricochet: How Violinist Maureen Choi Leaped from Classical Perfection to Latin Jazz Passion
Maureen Choi began like many virtuosic classical violin players, steeped in the hours-long daily discipline, the precision and devotion, her training and calling demanded. After a devastating car crash, Choi realized she had only one life to live--and she needed to make the music she loved. She turned to jazz and to the music of the Spanish-speaking world, eventually creating a beautiful amalgam of classical finesse, jazz ingenuity, and Iberian soul as the bandleader for the Maureen Choi Quartet.
“In the classical world, you don’t perform until the music is perfect. I learned I have to engage in the moment, that I didn’t have to be so perfect,” reflects Choi. “It was a big life lesson for me. When I was playing, I approached the violin and music more naturally, without all the pressure. I don’t have to be so perfect or totally prepared. I could pour out my years of training and do what I loved.”
Now the Madrid-based Berklee instructor and composer is heading to the US for a summer tour, hitting Baltimore, NYC, Chicago, and Detroit, among other markets this June and July.
Choi hails from a musical family: Her mother was one of very few singers from Korea to pursue operatic vocal training in Vienna. She continued giving lessons throughout Choi’s youth. “I got the vocal repertoire in my ear,” she recalls. Her father played guitar and was an avid maker of mix tapes. “There was always music on,” laughs Choi.
When Choi opted to dive deep into violin studies as a young woman, she knew what that required. The technique she acquired in the process--lush tone, thoughtful and expressive vibrato and ricochet--is everywhere in her work, whether she’s playing an original bolero or an arrangement of a Latin classic or classical piece.
Yet even as she focused intently on perfecting her classical playing, other music beckoned. She spent nights on the dancefloor, dancing to Latin music. She took a jazz string class and was entranced. “I fell in love with the improvisational aspects, and I felt this sense of liberation. I got addicted to playing jazz,” she remembers.
Then disaster struck, and a near-miss encounter with death made Choi think about what she really, truly wanted. “I was on this classical path, but my head and heart and ears kept going to jazz,” she says. “A year into my MA studies, I decided I would audition for Berklee and I got a scholarship.” Choi began composing and had her first experiences playing Latin music.
This love of Latin America and Spanish music has blossomed, as Choi has immersed herself in the many styles and sounds. Long fascinated by classical pieces with Spanish underpinnings--the Quartet does its own take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol”--she has researched everything from Paco de Lucia’s interpretations of guitar traditions, to Venezuelan joropo. Each style has its own lead voice--the bandoneon in Argentine tango, the cuatro or harp in Venezuelan music--that speaks to her, and informs her playing and writing.
Choi now lives in Spain, teaching at Berklee’s Valencia campus and performing and composing. She works closely with Mario Carrillo, bassist in the Quartet and her arranging partner (as well as life partner). “I go to Mario and then to the band with as much meat as possible, with my concepts and melodies as developed as I can make them,” explains Choi. “Mario looks at what I have, listens, and comes up with beautiful ideas. Then the band will try different things, and add their own elements.”
The ideas are slowly shifting, as audiences will get to hear on tour. From the group’s debut Ida y Vuelta, Choi is playing with more Spanish influences, the many regional folklores of the country that go far beyond its most well-known export, flamenco. No matter what the repertoire, the Quartet’s dynamic, emotional performances dance lightly across genres, without losing the passion and rigor.