Emi Makabe

Emi Makabe is a Japanese composer, vocalist, shamisen player, and educator based in New York City. Her songs, described by New York Music Daily as “rapturous, adventurous Japanese folk-influenced jazz,” encompass jazz, pop, classical and improvised music, and also reflect her background in Japanese music. She has performed in renowned venues in New York City, Europe and Japan. She sings in English and Japanese as well as wordlessly, and plays piano and shamisen, a Japanese traditional string instrument.

She was born in Chiba, Japan, and has been involved with music from early childhood. Her mother, who taught music at elementary school, was her first piano teacher. Early musical activities included singing, playing flute, and learning the Japanese koto and shamisen, and as a teenager she began to play and compose original songs.

Moving to New York in 2008, she earned a Bachelor of Music degree in jazz performance and Pro Music award from the City College of New York, and went on to complete a Master of Music from Aaron Copland School of Music while singing in the Billy Harper Voices. Her focus was on jazz and classical harmony, theory and vocal technique, and her teachers include Theo Bleckmann, Jen Shyu, Donna Doyle, Janet Steele, David Schober, Jeb Patton, Billy Harper and Thomas Morgan. Counterpoint is at the heart of her approach to composition, and she is taking ongoing counterpoint lessons with Paul Caputo and Judith Berkman.

She participated in the 2018 Copenhagen Jazz Festival, singing and playing shamisen in a duo performance with Thomas Morgan. She is currently composing and performing her compositions at jazz venues in New York such as the 55 Bar, Cornelia Street Cafe, Rockwood Music Hall, ShapeShifter Lab and St. Peter’s Church, performing with musicians such as Kenny Wollesen, Thomas Morgan, Vitor Gonçalves, Johnathan Blake, Rudy Royston, Nate Wood, Gerald Cleaver, Fabian Almazan, Ches Smith, Chris Tordini, Jacob Sacks, Fung Chern Hwei, Billy Mintz, Satoshi Takeishi and Billy Harper.

She is also a Steinway-associate educator, teaching voice, piano and music theory.

Her debut album, Anniversary, was released on October 30, 2020.


Emi Makabe Quartet:

This ensemble has been performing Emi’s compositions for over five years at some of the most prominent jazz venues in New York such as the 55 Bar, Cornelia Street Café, and Rockwood Music Hall. The ensemble, which has been steadily gaining a following and playing standing-room-only shows, consists of Thomas Morgan (double bass), Vitor Gonçalves (piano and accordion), Kenny Wollesen (drums), and Emi Makabe (voice and shamisen).

The music of this ensemble can be characterized as jazz but it is a unique composition of different cultural elements. The leader, Emi, is originally from Japan, and her background is reflected in her compositions and singing; she sings in English, Japanese, and without lyrics, and plays the shamisen, a Japanese traditional string instrument.

The sound of the shamisen blends with the accordion and piano played by Vitor Gonçalves, who is from Brazil. His lyrical piano playing and percussive style contrast and resonate with the groove of the drummer, Kenny Wollesen, and make a lively and interesting overall texture. Kenny’s stable and flowing sense of time supports Emi’s polyrhythmic compositions, and he has a sophisticated sensibility for vocal music. He is a very flexible drummer and is able to play any genre (jazz, rock, pop, country, etc.). He gives Emi freedom to compose and arrange in any style. At the core of Thomas Morgan’s playing is also a solid sense of rhythm (leading Dan Weiss to call him “Rock”). In addition, his sincere, warm, and dynamic bass sound connects with the particularities of each band member, and makes the whole ensemble sound special.

Kenny joined the band in 2017, a year before the recording of “Anniversary,” and in fact the first performance of this quartet lineup was just days before the recording session, at the 55 Bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vitor and Thomas have been members of the quartet since 2012, when Vitor and Emi were both studying at City College, and more regularly since 2015, after Emi had earned her Masters degree at Queens College.

What this group creates together is more ensemble music than vocal, and the improvisation of each member becomes an important part of the whole. Their ability to listen and interact makes this possible. In addition, they have no trouble interpreting Emi’s most intricate compositions, giving her freedom as a composer.