Hiromi is the Hendrix of the piano.

She plays like a girl. A really GOOD girl.

I don’t get jazz sexism.

I used to read Down Beat magazine and my favorite section was the blindfold test where notable artists would listen to tunes selected for them to critique.   When you got someone like Miles Davis listening to something he thought was crap he wasn’t shy about saying so.   What I don’t remember even Miles at his meanest saying, “Take that shit off.  That bitch can’t play.”

Name an instrument and if there’s a man who is playing it, odds are there’s a woman who can too.    The individual style in which one player employs may identify them as a man or a woman, but unless you see who’s playing how can you tell if its Cindy Blackman or Harvey Mason behind the drum kit?  Jazz  has one hard, fast rule: you got to be able to play and if you can gender has nothing to do with it.   It really is true it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Duke Ellington nailed it when he say there were only two types of music: good and bad.   If  you can’t play it does not matter if you stand in the men’s room or you sit in the ladies room.  

Hiromi Uehara plays good.   REALLY good.   There’s real jazz and fake jazz.   In real jazz there is improvisation, virtuosity, spontaneity, a willingness to take risks and a spirit of adventure where the artist does not settle for the safe and familiar but is willingness to explore the limits of both their instrument and their imagination.   None of those qualities have a damn thing to do with a Kenny G. record.   That is fake jazz.   Now I like light jazz every so often.   It’s like a Big Mac and fries.   Far from gourmet dining but perfectly adequate and acceptable when your tastes aren’t that demanding.   But real jazz gives the listener many a moment of true artistry that makes the listener say, “damn.”  

Hiromi gives me a lot of “DAMN” moments.  She was a student at the Yamaha School of Music and continued on at The Berklee School of Music where on a full scholarship  she had the opportunity to play with Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal.   Jamal co-produced her 2003 debut album, Another Mind, which as a review in Allmusic.com wrote shows off  Hiromi playing with “an almost demonic energy and amazing stamina.”   Hiromi came to my attention while on a  trip to Nashville, I road tested Another Mind  and was blown away by her powerful technique.

Here’s an analogy that if you’ve never heard of Hiromi is going to sound ridiculous but follow where I’m going here.    What was it like the first time you really heard Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen show what they could do with a guitar in their hands?    For me, when I heard Hendrix doing “Machine Gun” on Band of Gypsies, I became a fan for life.  It took me longer to warm up to David Lee Roth’s vocals than it did Eddie Van Halen’s string shredding pyrotechnics on “Eruption.”   

Those are Holy Crap!  I’ve never heard anyone play a guitar like that! moments.

That’s what listening to Hiromi is like.  She’s to the piano what a Hendrix and Van Halen are to the guitar.   Yeah, she’s that good.

Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking.   But unless you can do better than this you should not doubt me. 

Sometimes I despair when another jazz icon like Hank Jones and Billy Taylor passes on, but my hope for the genre is rekindled when I hear young lions like Hiromi  blowing my mind with her jaw-dropping performance of “Choux à la Creme” from her solo piano album, Place To Be, which was a slam dunk for inclusion on my Best of list for 2010.

It would be one thing if Hiromi were just an affirmative action hire adding a bit of diversity to the man’s man world of jazz, but that would be selling her short.  You don’t get tabbed by Stanley Clarke to handle the piano duties as part of his acoustic trio if you don’t have serious chops.   She does.    Yes, she can play fast and coax sounds out of those 88 keys others either have not or can not, but she understands the tradition as well.   She’s not just a prodigy; she’s a student in a genre where she is not yet a master.

But she’s getting there.   In a hurry. 

To play jazz in America is to play without much fame or fortune laboring in relative musical obscurity where only the enlightened few know how good you really are.  That’s what I see as the greatest good I can do as a music critic and that’s to do my small part to provide some exposure to artists that don’t deserve to be ignored just because they aren’t on American Idol or starting stupid Twitter wars. 

NPR isn’t the first place that comes to mind as a oasis in the desert for jazz, but it is.  Somebody there has taken a particular shine to Miss Uehara.   There’s a lot of music and video links on their website including an interview and performance on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show.   McPartland is no slouch on the keyboard, but she had to shake her head in astonishment over how fast and strong Hiromi’s playing is.   

There’s still a certain degree of “hey, look what I can do” to Hiromi’s approach to piano, but hell she’s only 32 years old.   She’s still having fun learning what she can do with her instrument of choice.   When you got the audacity to juxtapose  Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and Ellington’s “Caravan” with “Led Boots” from Jeff Beck’s Wired as she did on her album of covers, Beyond Standard, its obvious  Hiromi is a serious musician that doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Allow Hiromi a few youthful musical flourishes.   The girl can flat out play the hell out of a piano.   As she said in a 2004 interview with  a certain dazzled writer,  “I play the piano with my whole body. I was always trying to find the sound that I liked. I listened to many musical giants from jazz to classical. They had such a huge sound and I’m really small—like short? I couldn’t get the sound because I’m too short. I don’t have big hands and long arms. When I started playing with my whole body I finally could get the whole sound.”

Yeah, she’s short in stature.  But she plays big. 

Master and student at work

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8 responses

  1. Although I do enjoy classic jazz… it seems most “jazz” performer are self-centered… as if playing for themselves… not once does Hiromi look to camera or try and engage the listener…

    1. You’re kidding, right? Jazz is not like rock where the showmanship often overwhelms the music. Jazz is hard music to play no matter how easy it looks. A piano is larger than the musician playing it and Hiromi Uehara isn’t exactly the size of a NBA power forward, y’know?

      I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the classic jazz of a Miles Davis who was so into the music that he would literally turn his back on the audience. That wasn’t Miles disrespecting the paying customers. That was just him trying to blow a particularly hard note on his trumpet and not really caring to waste time with stage chat and looking sexy for the babes. Not that he ever had much of a problem on that score.

      I can’t begrudge a jazz musician for hunkering down over their instrument and trying like hell not to screw up a particularly knotty passage. I think what you might not be considering is this isn’t a genre where the visual presentation takes prominence over the musical performance. Every jazz musician I’ve ever met was something of a perfectionist. They make mistakes like everyone else, but theirs are usually live and on stage. If they play for themselves it might be because they hold themselves to a higher standard than the audience does and are trying to please themselves first so they can please everybody else. :(

  2. Truman Winbush

    Jeff, happy birthday. I think you have lost your damn mind. I get that you have a soft spot for little Japanese jazz artists. You are entitled to like what you like. But to say she is the Hendrix/Van Halen of the piano is a real WTF!! She’s okay. But come on. If you just want to compare her to other standout female jazz artists, okay. But the best of the best? You are clearly a fan of jazz from Japan. I like things Japanse too. I have a Nissan with a lot of miles on it that has been very good to me. I don’t compare it to a Rolls Royce.

    Enjoy your sushi.

    O-tanjoubi omedetou gozaimasu.

    1. Advantage: Big Brother over Little Brother. Mike, take a knee.

      Truman, I get it that you have a blind spot against little Japanese jazz artists and you’re free to do so. It would be an awfully boring world if we all liked only one kind of ice cream. But as you tell me: how can you dislike something you’ve never heard? You like Jeff Golub and I’m not crazy about him, but I’ve heard him. If you can watch that video and not be impressed by Hiromi’s technique and versatilitiy on the piano, I don’t know what to say except that’s your own blind spot against female jazz artists coming out. I used to think you were just kidding when you said women can’t play, but I don’t think you’re kidding anymore.

      That too is your call and what I like you don’t have to. I never was a fan of Incognito and your girl, Maysa, but I listened to them before I decided, “Ehhh.. not for me.”

      Anytime you want to go beyond your blind spot just let me know and I will loan you one of Hiromi’s four solo albums, either of the two with her Sonicbloom band, or the acoustic record she made with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White (two dudes that know a little about great pianists) or last year’s electric Stanley Clarke Band album.

      And if there’s something you want me to listen to I’ll try to do so with an open mind.

      Domo arigato for the birthday wishes, gentlemen. :)

  3. Thanks for this good essay, Jeff. I wasn’t familiar with Hiromi’s work. Her Studio 4B performance (above) reminds me of Dorothy Donegan, in its exuberance. She’s certainly doing things I never would have thought of; the rhythmic, inside-the-piano stuff is a case in point. And this statement is right on the mark — “To play jazz in America is to play without much fame or fortune laboring in relative musical obscurity where only the enlightened few know how good you really are…”

  4. Michael Winbush

    Yeah, bro – Happy Birthday – keep it up and you will someday catch up to me.

    On the other hand, I just came back after listening to the 2004 NPR interview with Hiromi. Truman’s entitled to his opinion, everyone doesn’t have to like the same thing. (It would be a pretty boring world if the only flavor was vanilla). But I agree with you regarding Hiromi – I purchased the Place To Be CD after watching her perform on YouTube and after listening to her first 3 solo albums I’m more impressed than ever.

    Some people can play music with technical skill – the notes line up where they’re supposed to be, but their music often lacks “feeling”. There’s no doubt that Hiromi puts emotion into her playing and she’s enjoying the music as much as the listener. I don’t care where she’s from or that she’s a woman, people need to recognize TALENT. When you hear or see something that is extraordinary it needs to be pointed out.

    Hiromi is fantastic.

  5. Truman Winbush

    And what advantage are you talking about?

    I just don’t see a piano Hendrix. To me calling her that is ridiculous. So she can riff. A lot of piano players can. Like I said she’s okay. I never said she couldn’t play. As far as my “blind spot” as you call it, I’m not as blind as you think. I was joking about the Nissan, I thought you would realize that. Seems like you took it personal.

    I really can get by not listening to the things you like and be just fine. And I’m sure you can do the same with the things I enjoy. . When you raise a discussion and I choose to respond you don’t have to compare my favorites with yours. I thought we were discussing one of yours. You don’t need my approval anymore than I need yours. We have both spent a fortune on music the other one wouldn’t have the least little interest in. Worked out okay to me.

    By the way, how do you know what I haven’t heard? You don’t, so please don’t act like you do.

    1. Truman, I had a great birthday and a good time with you guys the other night, but let’s not take this personally because all we’re talking about is another man’s taste. I’m not trying to convince you of a thing and even if you hate my music it’s not going to stop me from enjoying it any more than you would throw away your music because I wasn’t feeling the love, right?

      You don’t hear a Hendrix of the piano? Cool. I do. No one’s going to get mad if you disagree. Yes, we are discussing one of my favorites and not yours, but hey you’re the one who made the “little Japanese jazz artists” crack.

      We are long past the days of electric football and “you play one of yours and I play one of mine.” You know what you like and I like what I like. However, even in jest, it’s hard to criticize someone the musical tastes of another person without them taking it very personally. As much as I can’t stand Adam Sandler, I wouldn’t say someone is a slob for liking Adam Sandler movies. Kenny G. is something else entirely.

      I don’t see any reason to compare Hiromi with “other standout female jazz artists” because gender doesn’t mean anything to me when I listen to music. If you can play, you can play. Period. There is no need to say, “Hey, you’re pretty good. Go sit over there next to the other chicks.” If you are the best of the best, then that’s it. And in my opinion Hiromi is among the best of the best.

      You are right that I don’t know what you listen to. I do have an idea of what you don’t listen to and that’s female jazz artists or at least the ones who actually play instruments instead of sing in front of them.

      All I can do is extend the invitation. Whether or not you accept or reject it, is forever and always, your own call and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing. :|

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