Turning the page
Local jazz pianist overcomes self-doubt on new album
Chico musician Shigemi Minetaka considers her latest musical project the end of a trying chapter in her life. In the 19 years since she left Japan, she’s gone through a long process of overcoming her sense of isolation in America as well as her feeling of inferiority as a musician.
“It’s almost like a miracle [that] I continued playing music,” she said. “Almost every day, I was thinking, ‘I should quit, I’m no good.’ In Japan, there’s this impression that if you’re a musician, you have to be really good, you know? So, I felt like I wasn’t qualified to play music as a profession, even though I was earning money from playing gigs.”
The CN&R caught up with the jazz pianist ahead of her CD-release show on Friday (Feb. 16), at Naked Lounge. Her new album, Chapter 3, includes five of her own original compositions, one song apiece by two of her bandmates, Niobel Cascaret and Ethan Swett, and a jazz standard—“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”—arranged by Minetaka. Recorded in her spare time between raising two daughters and working as a part-time piano instructor at Butte College, the album represents her new-found self-acceptance as a musician, she said.
“I’ve been feeling a little more confident and making more original music,” she said. “It was time to record.”
Minetaka was raised in a musical household in Chiba, just outside of Tokyo, and started taking classical piano lessons at age 5. By the end of high school, she was good enough to play some of Frédéric Chopin’s more difficult compositions, but she was discouraged from studying music in college.
“In Japan, it’s very strict,” she said. “You almost have to be a concert pianist as you’re applying to schools. I wasn’t that good.”
Minetaka gave up on music for 10 years after high school—a period she described as “goofing around, partying, working and studying a little bit”—and left Japan to improve her English. She ended up in Canada, where she met her husband, Thomas Mattman, who is now a professor of mathematics at Chico State.
While Mattman completed his doctorate in Montreal, Minetaka didn’t have a work visa and therefore didn’t have much to do. Inspired by the city’s vibrant jazz scene as well as Holly Cole, a Canadian jazz singer who is popular in Japan, Minetaka enrolled in a jazz-combo class and tried her hand at improvisation for the first time. It was a major challenge.
“After I passed the audition, I realized how really behind I was in the class,” she said. “Everybody had improvisational experience. … I could play some difficult pieces while reading music, but I was a beginning improviser.”
Despite the frustration, she stuck with the class because she liked its social aspects. Previously, it had been difficult to make friends in Montreal, and music turned out to be a good way to meet people.
“That was a big part of me continuing music after I came [to Chico],” she said. “I didn’t know anybody here, but I would go to gigs and meet musicians. For me, it was a social thing. I never thought I was going to be a great jazz pianist.”
During her time in Chico, she’s earned a master’s degree in music studying under Rocky Winslow at Chico State, and played in numerous groups around town, including Los Papi Chulos and NewmanAmiYumi.
Now, with an ensemble rounded out by Cascaret (vocals, percussion), Swett (bass, guitar) and Zach Cowan (drums), she’s feeling more comfortable in her roles as a jazz musician, composer and bandleader, and it comes through in her new recordings.
“The songs are honest and true and simple,” she said, “and also reflecting the reality of my life as a mom. I’m very busy, so none of the songs took a long time to write or anything, but they came out of my heart.”