All for Their Love of Music: An Interview with Violinist Michael White and Vocalist Leisei Chen
Say the name Michael White to a jazz aficionado, and the likely response will be something like, ‘Yeah, great jazz violinist back in the day. Wonder what he’s doing these days? . . .”
The answer to the question of where he’s been is here, there and everywhere. If you missed him and his vocal muse Leisei (pronounced ‘lay say’) Chen when they performed as part of the Alice Coltrane Tribute at UCLA Live last December, you’ll have the opportunity to see the Michael White Quintet (MWQ) on Sunday, May 1 at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock at 7 p.m.
White is a prodigy, who learned to play the violin when his mother gave him the instrument at age 7. He may best be remembered for his seminal work with John Handy and his forays into avant garde jazz with Sun Ra, Alice and John Coltrane, and McCoy Tyner in the 1960s and ’70s. He even headed his own band, Fourth Way, in those days.
He’s from Houston, TX, but was raised in Oakland, CA. He’s lived variously in Africa and Japan. And in L.A. While living in Los Angeles, he and L.A.-based vibraphonist Rickey Kelly were supposed to do a cable television show but, when that didn’t pan out, they relocated to Seattle. White taught a bit at Cornish College of the Arts, where he initially met Chen, who’s Chinese but was reared in Kobe, Japan.
But it wasn’t until a chance encounter years later at the Seattle’s Jazz Alley, where Chen regularly performed at jam sessions, that his musical vision linked up with hers. One night, she couldn’t perform, and White was her replacement. Of his performance that, Chen says she saw him “surrounded by light.” On a break, he approached her and said, “I’m not trying to hit on you but I like your energy.”
Chen says she’d been wanting a band with a violin, while White says he’d been wanting a band with a singer whose music with mesh with his. So, he says, he “went to the universe and asked for”-and got-Chen.
Now White and Chen are man and wife, soulmates and musical partners. The first time the two played together was around 2004, on the 30th anniversary recording of White’s seminal recording of “Land of Spirit and Light.”
Quite fortuitous, since the couple, in addition to their music, explores metaphysics, astrology and the like, and conducts workshops all over the world called “Spontaneous Inspiration for Jazz Improvisation: Colors + Emotions + Sounds.”
One of their current projects is “Touring Museums,” which is a blend of concerts, workshops and collaborations with artists, with a special focus on light and color. Also, with new materials at the ready, they are pursuing a record deal. Going forward, White and Chen will appear as special guests of Build An Ark at Grand Performances on July 23.
To learn more about the unique duo that is Michael White and Leisei Chen, just go to their official website at www.leisei-michael.com.