Audeze speaks with guitarist and composer Miles Okazaki

February 25, 2021

Miles Okazaki is a highly respected and multi-award winning jazz guitarist and composer, who's played and collaborated with many greats, including Jane Monheit, Craig Taborn, Dan Weiss, Amir El Saffar, Mary Halvorson, and Steve Coleman. To date, Miles has released seven albums as leader. Despite all this accomplishment, he remains a warm and down-to-Earth human -- when asked for an introduction, Miles wrote "I like to make beautiful and unusual sounds in order to connect people to one another." In that spirit, please check out Miles' newest recording Trickster's Dream.

Guitarist and composer Miles Okazaki poses with his LCD-Xs in front of guitars

Miles comes to Audeze through the grace of David Breskin. Special thanks to db for inspiration and connections.

Here's our chat with Miles:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

The most recent studio album with my quartet, called "The Sky Below," and my solo recording of the complete works of Thelonious Monk, called "Work."

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

Whether I'm the bandleader or functioning as a sideman, I'm primarily a collaborator. My nature is to be "in the mix," rather than leading or following.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I was always interested in music with a strong rhythm, something that makes you want to move around. I started with guitar heroes - Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Christian, Segovia, and went on from there. Although I've branched off in a million different directions over the years, the primary interest in rhythm remains the same.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Growing up with visual artists as parents, my musical concepts still come largely from images and ways of looking that I absorbed in the early years. In terms of my musical development, there are too many moments to list, but I've had several important mentors. When I moved to New York City at the age of 22, my first teacher was the guitarist Rodney Jones, who is still an important source for me. He was brutally honest with me about the flaws in my musicianship, and without his guidance it would have taken me a long time to develop the tools that I needed to find my way forward.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

There was a period when I had been working on musical concepts for such a long time that I felt disconnected from the physical nature of my instrument. My playing was languishing and I didn't see a way forward, so I wrote a book about it, which took another three years. It's hard to say whether another way would have been different or faster, but I believe if I felt that way again I'd try to find a more direct, less obsessive way out of the problem, as I trust my intuition more at this point.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Although I have many instruments, I've been playing the same guitar as my main instrument since the mid 90s, which is a 1978 Gibson ES-175CC. It's nothing special, but I'm used to it. I use a Boomerang phrase sampler as a kind of audio sketch pad, and MAX/MSP to make computer programs for working out musical concepts. For composing, I have some notebooks from a specific store in Lausanne, Switzerland, that I've been using for years. These books and a nice pen will get me in the mood to write something new.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Well, everyone has their own journey. But once you find a path that truly interests you, I think it's a good idea to stay on it and see how far you can go. The temptation to jump around to different paths to find the fastest route is always there, but this can dilute your focus and energy. Find your sound, hold on tight, do whatever you can to make it manifest in the world. Let the chips fall where they may.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I've been working with headphones since my first experiences in the studio, so about 25 years now. I use them at all stages, but they are most important to me during mixing and mastering. Generally during the mixing sessions I will use the headphones as a reference for the most idealized representation of the sound, and then compare that to the studio monitors, car speakers, earbuds, and other less than ideal ways that people might hear the recording.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

Well it's interesting during this time (Covid days) that we spend so much time living through technology, looking into screens with headphones on. All of the information comes to us through these sources. For that reason, I've tried to upgrade my gear to have really high quality video and sound, so my ears and eyes don't get worn out. And pure audio formats like podcasts are extremely popular - I feel that people are rediscovering the intimacy of the audio world as they go about trying to be informed and connected to each other. As musicians, we are trying to work on projects remotely with people scattered around the world, and the more realistic and high fidelity the sound is, the more we can be immersed in whatever project we are working on and unburdened by the difficulties of our physical separation.

I've tracked two records already with the new cans and man, it's a whole new world! It's such a different studio experience when you can actually hear that level of detail and separation while tracking. I'm sure mixing will be even better. For years I've usually just had some beat up pair of my own cans or whatever they have in the studio, and play with the idea that I'll really listen closely when I get into the control room. On the last date I barely even left my seat - there wasn't a need to check the sound. With the LCD-X in the studio, I have complete confidence that the tone of my instrument is accurate and natural, which gives me freedom to just focus on playing and getting into a creative frame of mind.

The new albums do not have titles yet, but they are with, Rajna Swaminathan, Dan Weiss, and next will be with my band, Trickster.