Back in December 2013 CBC producer Denise Ball asked if I’d be available to participate in an unusual little project: she wanted to pair me with a rap artist in a “music duel” video. The words “Flight of the Bumblebee” were mentioned. Along with “green screen”. And “director from Toronto”.

I have to admit, my initial reaction was pure, raw fear. I had never been in a video before. I had definitely never worked with a rap artist before. And, weird as it may sound, virtuosic showpieces like Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous little gem are the sort of repertoire I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding — not because I don’t think they’re fun, but rather because I’ve never really seen myself as a “virtuosic” player. Flight of the Bumblebee is a blatant showcase of those aspects of instrumental playing (flying fingers, machine-gun articulation) that I perhaps feel the least comfortable with.

All that said, curiosity quickly overcame trepidation. I wanted to meet this person they were to pair me with: hip hop artist Kia Kadiri. We all met at CBC Vancouver: Kia and her beatmaster, Russ Klyne, along with Denise and fellow producer Jon Siddall. Kia presented her first draft of the “Bumblebee rap” — and it’s safe to say that the entire room was gobsmacked. “Rapid fire” doesn’t even begin capture the what she does. But what is perhaps most remarkable is that through all that vocal virtuosity, there is a core warmth, wit, and humour that is absolutely irresistible.

So I bloody well knuckled down and practised. And I added a few touches of my own (with a tip of the hat to iconic flutists Roland Kirk and Greg Patillo). The result is pure fun: in fact, the video shoot was a scream. Oddly, one of the highlights of that afternoon came from the makeup artist: before the video shoot, she sat me down, studied my complexion and asked what colour of foundation I usually take. When I stared back at her blankly, she put a hand to her face and whispered, “Oh my God… A virgin.”

Well, virgin no longer — bring on that foundation! To watch the video, click the link below.

My view from the office: Onyx Trio recording at the Vancouver Academy of Music. Marcus Takizawa (left) and Joy Yeh (right).
My view from the office: Onyx Trio recording at the Vancouver Academy of Music. Marcus Takizawa (left) and Joy Yeh (right).

When a group of artists sets out to work together, there can be any number of complicating factors: will everyone share a common vision? Will there be an effective chemistry and comradery? Will there be an egalitarian division of labour? But when harpist Joy Yeh, violist Marcus Takizawa, and I convened to form a new trio last month, we didn’t seem to have any of these issues. We get along well, we all bring a diversity of strengths to the group, and we share a love for the music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

But for the love of all things good, we couldn’t come up with a name.

We wanted what all new enterprises want when name-hunting: something that’s catchy, appropriate, simple yet multi-layered. And we also thought it would be great to have a name that paid tribute to our Asian heritage (Joy is originally from Taiwan; Marcus and I are Canadian-born of Japanese backgrounds). Try as we might, there wasn’t anything that leaped out at us — searching for commonalities between Taiwan and Japan produced names that were (at best) difficult to pronounce by Western standards or (at worst) evocative of the rather bloody history between the two countries. Thankfully, it was the composer Jocelyn Morlock who came to the rescue with the name “Onyx”. Onyx is a gemstone formed in the gas cavities of lava. It can appear in many colours, but black is the colour that we most often associate with this stone — and thus very subtly alludes to our Asian heritage, in that we all have black hair (well, those of us who still have hair, or course). And, I gotta admit, it sounds great rolling off the tongue and it looks wonderful in print.

Thanks to Marcus’ skills as a recording engineer, the Onyx Trio recently recorded the second movement of Debussy’s remarkable Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe as well as Takemitsu’s And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind — both of which have been included here for your listening pleasure. Expect to hear more from us soon!