A Woman Will Be Heard: An Interview With Mai Sugimoto

Photo by Kioto Aoki

Intensity is a common theme that permeates Chicago saxophonist Mai Sugimoto’s work. Her debut solo album, Monologue, is one of the year’s most memorable sonic statements with its ferocious physicality and melodic sensibility. For music that might be difficult, I find it surprisingly approachable and engaging. Sugimoto’s skill is boundless as she can jump between different ideas while stitching them together with a common material thread. It’s music that demands attention and must be felt to be heard. 

Beyond her solo work, Sugimoto has played important roles in various Chicago-based ensembles like Hanami and Alex Massa’s Water Music. Whatever she is involved in, it’s worth exploring. Mai can be reached through her website and her music is available on her Bandcamp.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Memories you have where something in your brain kind of clicked and it sparked your interest in sound?

My dad playing the piano– he just played for fun and would play his favorite Chopin etudes and jazz standards. There was a lot of music in the house growing up, and I appreciate my parents for playing a pretty wide range of music from Keith Jarrett to Earth Wind & Fire to Khachaturian. I guess hearing the music they enjoyed naturally influenced my interest in starting to want to learn the piano at an early age. My mom also remembers me responding positively to commercials with music. Japanese commercials use a lot of catchy music, and the 80s and 90s, I consider, were the golden age of jingles. A lot of silliness and humor, but a lot of them still stay with us who grew up hearing them on tv.

When did you start learning and playing music yourself and what motivated you to take that step?

I began with piano at age 6 like many kids. My dad playing the piano and being able to play on the spot was always so intriguing to me, and I wanted to be able to play whatever song I heard or make sounds on the piano.

What led you to alto saxophone? Although I know you’ve played clarinet on the Hanami Quartet recordings in addition to alto, so perhaps you started there…

When we moved to the U.S., we had difficulty finding a piano teacher since we didn’t have any connections. Then I picked up the saxophone for school band, then got serious about it in high school. Besides the piano, I always dreamed of one day playing in a big band, like the one my dad used to for hobby back in Japan. The clarinet came later during my college years when I had to double on the flute and clarinet to be able to play in different bands. Those are challenging instruments to play…

What motivated you to start composing your own music? Was there something in particular that you wanted to create or ideas you had that you wanted to translate into sound?

Around the time I started playing the piano, I constantly had ideas to play music with other people or cook using specific types of ingredients– neither of which I had done yet– but I had a strong desire to put my (totally unformed) ideas into real life. Fast forward to high school, I started arranging 4-part harmony songs for fun, but the original compositions didn’t start until college. I got lucky and met great musicians and creative friends in college, and that motivated me to write for the bands I played in. I definitely got to experiment a lot in college, trying to copy the way Wayne Shorter or Ornette Coleman wrote for their bands. But it wasn’t until after academia and years later that I had other sounds I wanted to capture. I guess it’s like anything, the more you do, the closer you get to realize your ideas. I think experimenting with more sounds on the saxophone also expanded my composition or improvisational ideas.

How did you end up in Chicago?

I grew up in different parts of Illinois for the majority of my life, and I naturally ended up in Chicago where many of my music heroes and friends were as soon as I finished grad school.

Obviously, there’s a ton going on in the jazz and free improvisation worlds in Chicago. What was it like breaking into the scene there when you moved?

When I moved to Chicago in 2007, there was a lot going on as always. Maybe the biggest difference from the recent years is that there were more spaces back then that would host jazz and creative performances. Little cafés and bars and gatherings that were very small but had some of the best music in the city, in my opinion. I can’t say that I had broken into the scene at that point– probably took me about 10 years for people to start (sort of) recognizing me. But I loved going to go see the various shows around the city and learning from some of the most creative and amazing musicians in the world.

Monologue came out earlier this year and it’s been one of my favorite recordings in 2021 and one that’s really stuck with me. Your playing on it is quite physical, quite visceral. It demands our attention. You mention in the description of it you talk about creating a space for a woman’s voice to be heard in a world amid white chauvinism and anti-Asian resentment. How did you take those experiences and really pour them into these compositions? I keep going back to how physical the album is and this phrase “A woman’s voice … will be heard” and Monologue embodies that.

I think the biggest focus of this recording was to try to “let go.” It’s redundant and cliché, and I’m sure it’s a common feeling for any artist, but to “let go” of one’s perception of sound and facility, is a difficult thing. I found that channeling my complex emotions at the time– all the gratitude, frustration, sadness, anger, joy…etc., — gave me the boost I needed to worry less. And yes, it was quite physical to record the music as well! In fact, it was the most physical I’ve ever been during a recording session. I played the saxophone or flute on one hand, and playing shells or drums, and even used my feet to play little toy xylophone. I experimented a lot with different combinations of sound that I could produce, acoustically, and simultaneously. I also literally screamed into the horn while playing and sang while playing the flute, etc… it was sometimes funny and ridiculous and it made me laugh, but it was all part of letting myself go and just do what I wanted to at the time. It may be a hard record to listen to, but I can honestly say that a lot of passion and (literal) sweat went into making this record!

I also find there’s real freedom and imagination in how you play throughout and wondered how much of these recordings were composed vs. improvised?

Nothing on the record was composed, there were only loose ideas of sound and instrumentation for the pieces. I wanted to improvise as freely as possible, and I was trying to only give myself little ideas to begin the piece and take it wherever it felt right or good. I actually ended up not using some of the more predetermined pieces at the end because they were not as interesting or fun.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to make this record?

Aside from the fear that I was the only thing making sound at any point on the record, it was definitely overcoming my insecurities of making a solo record at this point in my career. I thought I wouldn’t be ready to make a solo record until I reached a certain age, or a peak in my music career, or status, but then, a wise mentor told me to look at it like documentation of your current sound and work. That resonated with me, and I was able to think more positively and focus on what I can make right now.

And when you’re doing a solo record or even solo performance, like this – what are the biggest challenges for you and differences in your mental approach compared with playing in an ensemble or band?

Being alone on the bandstand is a weird feeling. We’re all used to playing music with others, so it just feels naked and exposed to play solo. It’s also challenging to not worry about trying to sound full as if you are in a band. Of course, a solo (acoustic) instrument will have more space, and you kind of have to embrace that.

I’ve only recently learned about Alex Massa’s Strange Winds project that you’re in. How did you get involved playing with Alex and that ensemble?

Alex and I met a few years back when he was putting together his Water Music band. I immediately liked his approach to writing and his energy. We had a great time playing, then we continued to play more in different settings, like Strange Winds, among others. I’m grateful that he has asked me to be a part of his many projects, and it’s been really fun to play with him. 

I was listening to the Socially Distanced session earlier today and it feels quite heavy, which makes sense considering the themes explored and when it was recorded. Was this one of the first recording sessions you had after everything shut down last spring?

Aside from the video session I recorded with a trio, this was the first recording session. It may sound heavy but we had a blast getting together and playing together as we always do. Because we were being cautious and recorded outdoors in Alex’s back courtyard, that gave us a unique space to play. It felt different and more open than recording indoors, but it sounded nice and we used a lot of space to listen to each other, I think.

Further to that, what were those early days of the pandemic like for you and how did you try to channel those emotions into this session?

It was sad that the upcoming performances were canceled. But that also made me look on the bright side. Instead of recording a live trio performance, I decided to release a solo album. That may not have happened so soon if I could make any record I wanted to, so I’m thankful for that opportunity. I think we were definitely nervous and scared, but gratitude was the biggest takeaway from the early days of the pandemic, for me, looking back. Being able to practice, and make music was something we could do (at home, at least), and then being able to eventually perform later that year made me really appreciate every moment of it. Another cliché we hear and tell (as a joke, mostly) often, “play like this is the last time you ever will” or “play like you’ll die tomorrow” suddenly became somewhat of a reality to us, and that may be the best way to describe the emotions I had whenever I played or recorded during the pandemic.

For a group like Strange Winds, among other projects, I ended up doing in 2020, being able to meet outdoors gave us the opportunity to play with each other. I remember the overall energy to be very positive, and we were just so happy to be reunited and to improvise together.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a few different projects that I’m very excited about, and will be releasing another record before the end of the year!

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