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Hiromi

April 2012
Jazz Police
Andrea Canter -
Hiromi and Trio Project at Yoshi's Article discussing Hiromi's history and albums

About 9 years ago and barely out of the Berklee College of Music, pianist Hiromi Uhera created a wave of tremors throughout the jazz world with technical wizardry that conjured Art Tatum and girlish pizzazz that charmed the coolest audience. She quickly recorded a series of albums on Telarc with her Berklee-cohort trio (Tony Grey, Martin Valihora), then added wild guitarist David Fiuczynski to form her SonicBloom quartet. Her chops still dazzled but her increasing use of electronics engaged new fans while somewhat alienating others. Nevertheless, her compositions repeatedly yielded a wide palette, from lyrical fusings of Eastern and Western harmonies to free-wheeling mélanges of ever-shifting rhythms and tempos. Tatum, Jarrett, Evans, Coleman—the entire history of jazz seemed tightly wound inside one small woman whose energy seemed endless.

One of the most daring and creative voices of her generation, or perhaps of any working generation in jazz today, Hiromi has been rewriting the canon of modern jazz piano since those first recordings on Telarc and accumulating a list of awards on both sides of the Pacific, from Record and Artist of the Year honors from Swing Magazine to similar accolades from the Boston Music Society and Guinness Jazz Festival. Recent recordings (Duet with Chick Corea, Jazz in the Garden with the Stanley Clarke Trio, and her solo Place to Be) confirmed her star trajectory. In 2011, Hiromi returned to the trio format with new cohorts (bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips) and a new Telarc recording (Voice). Now her Trio Project lands at Yoshi's in Oakland, April 5-8.

A native of Shizuoka, Japan, Hiromi started playing piano at age 5, and enrolled in the Yamaha School of Music at age six. By age 12, she was performing in public, and at 14 performed with the Czech Philharmonic. When she was 17, she met Chick Corea in Tokyo: "He was doing something at Yamaha, and I was visiting Tokyo at the time to take some lessons. I talked to some teachers and said that I really wanted to see him. I sat down with him, and he said 'Play something.' So I played something, and then he said, 'Can you improvise?' I told him I could, and we did some two-piano improvisations. Then he asked me if I was free the next day. I told him I was, and he said, 'Well, I have a concert tomorrow. Why don't you come?' So I went there, and he called my name at the end of the concert, and we did some improvisations together." Hiromi was immersed in classical and jazz through her earliest teachers and throughout her training, which culminated in her enrollment at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. An early influence was Oscar Peterson, with whom she was ultimately connected through Yamaha and who has been a significant supporter. Ahmad Jamal has overseen her recent career and was co-producer of her first recording. "I love Bach, I love Oscar Peterson, I love Franz Liszt, I love Ahmad Jamal," she says. "I also love people like Sly and the Family Stone, Dream Theatre and King Crimson. Also, I'm so much inspired by sports players like Carl Lewis and Michael Jordan. Basically, I'm inspired by anyone who has big, big energy. They really come straight to my heart."

For several years, Hiromi performed and recorded in trio format with fellow Berklee alums Tony Grey (bass) and Martin Valihora (drums). The Los Angeles Times praised her debut, Another Mind (2003), for its tendency to "vibrate and surge with the non-stop sensory stimulation of the ginza, with busy bass lines and crisply dissonant harmonies." Brain (2004) quickly followed, showcasing one of the most daring and creative voices of her generation, or perhaps of any working generation in jazz today. Indeed, Brain received Swing Journal's "New Star Award," Jazz Life's "Gold Album," HMV Japan's "Best Japanese Jazz Album," the Surround 2004 Horizon Award, the Japan Music Pen Club's "Japanese Artist Award," and recently, Swing's "Album of the Year" in its 2005 Readers' Poll. Noted her mentor (and co-producer of Another Mind), Ahmad Jamal, "Hiromi is changing the musical landscape. Her music, charm, and spirit let her soar to unimaginable heights. She is nothing short of amazing."

Particularly following the scrumptious diversity of Brain, one had to wonder which of many directions Hiromi would go next, or perhaps how she could continue to explore so many ideas without losing her way. With Spiral (2006), Hiromi again proved to be an endless well of original musical ideas that range from the eerily bizarre to the classically lyrical. And again, Spiral won the Swing Journal Award for the best jazz album by a Japanese artist. Then along came Time Control in 2007, featuring the same band with the addition of fretless guitar star David Fiuczynski and the new name, Sonicbloom, an apt description of the soundscapes that expanded the electronic experiments of the earlier recordings. Hiromi described the move from trio to quartet: "I always like taking risk in terms of finding something new - a new landscape that I've never seen. I decided to change the format of the band." Many of the characteristics that have marked Hiromi's music to date were still present, reflecting a maturing approach to composition that merges classical simplicity with 21st century complexity.

Sonicbloom continued to flower in 2008 with the quartet release of Beyond Standard. With six CDs as leader, now Hiromi recorded a dazzling set of duets with Chick Corea (Duet) and as part of Stanley Clarke's Trio (with drummer Lenny White) on the Heads Up release, Jazz in the Garden. In both instances, the core was all acoustic; the piano—not the frenzy—was the focus as Hiromi upstaged her older and legendary collaborators. In early 2010, all that firepower and lyricism took center stage without props as Hiromi released her first solo recording, Place to Be. Ten of the dozen tracks were new original compositions, along with unique interpretations of Pachelbel's "Canon" and a Louie Bellson/Remo Palmer ditty, "Berne Baby Berne."

Audiences have been blown away by Hiromi's dynamic range, percussive attack, and creative compositions that echo the wild playfulness of the Bad Plus as well as the sophisticated complexities of Tyner, Jamal and Jarrett. True to her generation, she integrates elements of current rock and pop—always with an underlying foundation of high-flying improvisation. Listening to her recordings, like her live performances, is an acoustic feast. Her left hand provides dazzling bass lines, her attack is as percussive and driving as a drum kit; and her keyboarding as challenging and musical as the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson while showing greater complexity. Hints of her classical upbringing peek through, but like Debussy on psychodelics. She can be alternately haunting and majestic, channeling bells, violins, even Bill Evans without letting the listener forget there's a firestorm raging nearby.

Last spring Hiromi returned to the trio format with new cohorts that complement her daring approach to composition and performance, releasing Voice with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. "When I play music, I realize that it really filters emotions," says Hiromi. "I called this album Voice because I believe that people's real voices are expressed in their emotions. It's not something that you really say. It's more something that you have in your heart…Instrumental music is very similar. We don't have any words or any lyrics to go with it. It's the true voice that we don't really put into words, but we feel it when it's real." In addition to her own voice (eight original compositions) the new release features a re-arrangement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 ("Pathetique").

Anthony Jackson appeared on a few tracks of Hiromi's early releases, Another Mind and Brain. Starting out on piano and then guitar, he switched to bass under the influence of Motown bassist James Jamerson. Jackson invented what is now known as the "six-string bass" (a bass guitar tuned B-E-A-D-G-C), which he calls the contrabass guitar. Covering jazz, funk and rock throughout his career, Jackson has played or recorded with Steely Dan, the O'Jays, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, Chaka Khan and more.

British rock, pop and jazz drummer Simon Phillips started out in his father's Dixieland Band. His early career included an American tour and recordings with The Who, performances with Roger Daltrey, Peter Townsend, Tears for Fears, and Judas Priest. He joined Toto in 1992.





   
   
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