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Maureen Choi: The Lure of Spain

Maureen Choi was studying to be a
classical violinist before she turned
to jazz and eventually moved
to Spain. While enrolled at Michigan State
University as a violin major, she realized that
there was more to her musical interest than her
classical regimen.
“I met bassist Rodney Whitaker and took
private jazz lessons with him,” she said. “He
started telling me, ‘You’re a jazzer; you just
don’t recognize it yet.’”
It took a near-death experience at age 25 for
that recognition to sink in. Following the
Christmas holidays, Choi was driving back to
the University of Minnesota, where she was
pursuing graduate work in classical music,
when she was involved in a serious auto accident.
In the two years it took her to recover, she
reached the decision to switch to jazz and audition
for Berklee College of Music.
At Berklee, Choi gravitated to the school’s
coterie of Latin musicians—from Spain,
Central and South America. “I had never
played Spanish music, but I loved salsa dancing
and the rhythms just fascinated me,” she said.
“That syncopation and those crazy triplets were
a challenge that I loved.”
One of the musicians she encountered was
Spanish bassist Mario Carrillo, who would
became her musical and romantic partner.
After graduation, the pair headed to New
York, where, despite some high-profile gigs on
Broadway and TV, Choi felt unfulfilled.
“I was 30, I didn’t have any money and I
didn’t want to live like that,” she said. “I just
hit on the idea of going to Spain—which Mario
didn’t really want to do at first.”
Now, five years after their move, Choi feels
at home. She has a teaching position at Berklee’s
campus in Valencia, and the couple loves their
quality of life.
Choi’s new CD, the excellent quartet disc
Ida y Vuelta, reflects influences from throughout
the Spanish-speaking world. For her next
project, she anticipates delving more deeply
into the music of her adopted home: “I’m fascinated
by the sound of Spanish guitar, that language,
and I want to really capture the sound
that is rooted in this country.” —James Hale