Mamiko Watanabe, Determined Contemporary Jazz

The pianist delivers a luminous performance on ‘Being Guided by the Light’ alongside legendary drummer Billy Hart and bassist Santi Debriano.


WordsRebecca Zissmann

‘Being Guided by the Light’, Mamiko Watanabe © Dan Balilty, Jojo Records

The album opens with a decisive piano chord, setting the tone. In Being Guided by the Light, her fifth album released in 2024 by Jojo Records, pianist Mamiko Watanabe showcases her versatility, spanning swing, Latin jazz, and experimental music. Accompanied by veterans Billy Hart on drums, known for his work with Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz, and Santi Debriano on bass, a former accompanist of Archie Shepp, Watanabe establishes her unique style—a modern and contemporary jazz that honors tradition.

Mamiko Watanabe grew up in Fukuoka, learning piano from the age of four, with her mother introducing her to jazz (although not a professional musician herself, her mother supported her musical endeavours from an early stage). She continued her studies on a scholarship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, following in the footsteps of Toshiko Akiyoshi, a pianist and bandleader discovered by Oscar Peterson, and the first Japanese citizen to study there. In the early 2000s, while still a student, Mamiko Watanabe had opportunities to play with notable musicians such as Joe Lovano and Bobby McFerrin. She recorded her debut album One After Another in 2005, followed by four more albums, including the acclaimed Mother Earth in 2010.


A Perpetual Search for New Light

Being Guided by the Light opens with the title track, composed by Watanabe during the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘I tried to compose every day to keep going,’ she recalls in an interview with Pen. ‘It was a difficult yet musically rich period. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to play these pieces in public. Today, I am very grateful to finally share them.’

This piece reflects her determination to improve her technique, characterised by restrained playing and variations in intensity. In contrast, ‘Atomic Space,’ another composition by Mamiko Watanabe, features a mystical atmosphere and almost dissonant harmonies, reflecting the spirituality infused in this project. ‘My musical exploration and development are a perpetual search for new light,’ explains Mamiko Watanabe. She draws inspiration from pianists like Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk, as well as from distant memories, including the addition of the ballad ‘My Grandfather’s Clock,’ popularised in Japan by the children’s music program Minna no Uta on NHK.

Recorded in two days after only two rehearsals, Being Guided by the Light showcases the trio’s coordination and interplay. A long-time collaborator with Santi Debriano, Mamiko Watanabe included ‘Nigeria,’ one of his compositions, on the advice of her producer Simon Belelty, who is also the director of Jojo Records. The album concludes with a piece by McCoy Tyner, to whom Santi Debriano has compared Mamiko Watanabe, a nod to her musical lineage as she seeks to expand her jazz horizons with new sounds, possibly funk or electric.


Being Guided by the Light (2024), an album by pianist Mamiko Watanabe, released by Jojo Records.


Billy Hart © Dan Balilty, Jojo Records

Santi Debriano © Dan Balilty, Jojo Records

Mamiko Watanabe © Dan Balilty, Jojo Records