Every moment of Miho Hazama’s third recording Dancer In Nowhere (Sunnyside) seems intended for full emotional impact—there isn’t one throw-away on this meticulously crafted recording. As a composer, she maximizes the sound and scope of each of the 13 instruments in her experimental ensemble—a standard rhythm section, a cluster of horns, an array of strings—collectively called m_unit. (She didn’t want to call them an “orchestra,” she says.) And as a conductor she makes sure that each sound gets its own hearing as it cycles into prominence through the kaleidoscopic changes in her compositions. This said, there’s nothing overblown about this recording. Hazama’s compositions are as economical as they are lush—a tricky balance to achieve.

The “nowhere” part of the title refers Hazama’s intent to channel intense, abstract notions into musical realities. In this effort she usually opens with a simple declarative melodic statement that serves as the departure point for the exploratory gambit that ensues. For instance, on “Somnambulent,” Hazama’s winning bid for the Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize in the 2015 BMI Jazz Workshop, the composer establishes the main motif in a lone, luminous vocal line (Kavita Shah) before the rhythm (Jake Goldas) and the sax (Jason Rigby) enter, pulling the listener into a suspenseful, ever-deepening harmonic montage. Even with its always-morphing roadmap, the piece does contain two big turnabouts: a wailing bluesy electric guitar solo (Lionel Loueke) in the eleventh hour and a sweeping final cadence in the strings—no voice, no sax, no guitar, no drums. Remarkable. Why does this work?

One of the reasons that Hazama’s compositions work as well as they do is her strict attention to dynamics that facilitate mood shifts. On “Today, Not Today,” the first track, the simple, syncopated opening sets up an expectation for a laid-back groove—but as the strings enter, and the vibes (James Shipp) ratchet up, and the trumpet (Jonathan Powell) begins to soar, a denouement into a full throttle finish seems not only apt but necessary. In contrast, on the title cut, the last track on the album, the sweetly repeating melody takes on added urgency as Hazama leads her band through several cycles of increasing harmonic and rhythmic complexity—but this time to a welcome soft close.    

Some of Hazama’s pieces here are closer what we’ve come to expect in a jazz big band sound, with a ringing high hat or dominant horn section. Composer John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” the only non-original on the album, and “Il Paradiso de Blues,” an impressive showcase for Hazama’s horn arranging skills, both fit into this slot, though just narrowly. Even on these, Hazama finds a way to twist the tune to her advantage—and the listener’s surprise.

(Reprinted from the March issue of Downbeat magazine.)