Editor Stephanie Eslake interviewed Jeffrey and Riko about their new album for Australian music magazine CutCommon. To see the interview in full, click here.
It mightn’t come as a surprise to you that many of the familiar faces on the CutCommon team are also forging their own careers in the music industry. I had the pleasure of being introduced to United States music critic Jeffrey Palmer not so long ago and, since he’s started writing stories for you to enjoy. I’ve also been made aware of the truly beautiful path he’s following in music as a countertenor. And I wanted to learn more about it.
When I say ‘beautiful’, I do mean it quite specifically, too: Jeffrey has partnered with pianist Riko Higuma for an album titled, and encompassing, Beauty 美.
Though we each possess our own understandings of the concept of beauty, I nevertheless found myself startled by its quality in this release. It’s an enigmatic and complex form of beauty, emanating from works spanning Handel to Purcell, Huang Ruo to Andrew List.
Brooklyn-based Jeffrey has practised his art since his performance debut as a 9-year-old, and has since travelled the US, Europe, and Asia with his remarkable voice; also forming collaborations with visual artists and fashion designers along the way.
His duo partner in Beauty 美 is Riko, who is a staff pianist and coach at the Manhattan School of Music, and has toured festivals the world over (including a South American recital tour with Ray Chen, among other collaborations with artists such as Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Alan Gilbert).
So when it comes down to it, how do you collaborate with a musician to make an album beautiful? And what does beauty even mean on an aesthetic and musical level?
We ask these two musicians in light of the first album they’ve released together. (And you might just win a copy for yourself, too. Read on.)
Jeffrey and Riko, it’s lovely to learn about your first album. Congratulations! Why did you want to release a CD together?
RIKO: Jeffrey and I had the opportunity to perform in Hefei, China together back in 2013 with a mutual friend of ours, violinist Yijia Zhang. Since then, we’ve had several occasions to work together, and also have become really good friends!
Last year, we both agreed that it really felt like the right time for the two of us to do our very own project together. I had previously worked with producer Sergei Kvitko, who founded Blue Griffin Records, on two album projects with my trio (Zodiac Trio), and I had a feeling that the combination of the three of us working on an album together would be the perfect fit.
A first album is quite a big deal, and for yours you’ve chosen the theme of beauty. Why is this a theme you were so interested in exploring together through music?
JEFFREY: After we decided to record an album together and started thinking about repertoire, the idea of simply performing music that we found very beautiful really excited and resonated with the both of us.
Essentially, this album is a collection of incredibly diverse works, both old and new, that show different facets of the concept of beauty, and that have touched us both personally at different points in life.
The very idea of beauty today is so fluid. What does beauty mean on an aesthetic level?
R: Jeffrey and I have been inspired by many different concerts and other arts events that we’ve attended together over the past few years in New York, where we both live. I think we both agree that beauty is something that transcends culture, language, and artistic expression.
We agreed on the repertoire for the album very easily, which was just one of the many reasons why I had no hesitation in making this album and calling it Beauty.
J: Yes, fortunately we find a similar thing beautiful! I do think that, when it comes down to it, something that is beautiful — music or otherwise — is both true to itself and inherently good. And we think the pieces on this album really fit that description.
Riko and Jeffrey, you each have such impressive backgrounds, having collaborated with many of the world’s great artists in your music careers. In such a competitive industry, what do you think is the relationship between a musician and a desire to generate ‘beauty’ in their own sound?
R: Having grown up in Japan training to be a pianist, acquiring technical perfection was one of the most important aspects of the process. But now, after years of performing professionally, even though it is necessary to have as much perfect technique as possible, it is crucial to understand that at the end of the day, instrumental or vocal technique is only one of the tools necessary to communicate and produce beauty when the music calls for it. It’s not the endgame in and of itself. At the end of the day, art is expression, and technical perfection is only one part of it.
J: Music is all about connecting with an audience. That should always be the main focus. And when done in a clear, effective, sensitive way, that is truly beautiful.
Moving to the practical side of your album, what did you each expect (or demand!) of each other as professional artists through this recording process?
R: I expected perfection from Jeffrey, as I always do from him!
J: And I succeeded, right?
R: In all honesty, I’ve worked with many vocal students who sometimes don’t put enough thought into meaning behind the words they’re singing. It’s not just a sound job, it’s a communications job. But with Jeffrey, I had no worries in that department!
J: One of the many reasons why I absolutely love working with Riko is that she consistently plays to perfection and is an extremely sensitive pianist. As a singer, working with a pianist like that is such a joy. So, I don’t know if we had any grand expectations of each other for this album project specifically, other than just enjoying the process of making music together as much as we always do.
What sort of feedback did you give and receive through the collaboration, which you weren’t expecting?
R: I don’t think there was anything unexpected between the two of us, but Sergei Kvitko, the producer, who is a brilliant pianist himself, really helped guide us and lent a fresh perspective.
J: It was wonderful having someone so accomplished there to shepherd us through the recording process and offer ideas along the way. He definitely pushed us a few times to try things in different ways, which resulted in some takes that were much better and quite different than what we had originally planned.
How would you encourage people to listen to your album, uniting the theme with what you’ve created musically?
J: This album really deserves to be listened to from start to finish in its entirety. Not just because of my voice or Riko’s playing, but because the beauty and depth of feeling in the music that we selected really warrant it. It’s not exactly background music!
R: I think our album is a great escape from the noise of everyday life. It would make me very happy to know that we could transport you somewhere else just by listening to our album. And I think we do a pretty good job in making that possible!