There are two things I’ll miss when I give up reviewing jazz this year. The first is simple: free CD’s? Who could gripe about that? The second is the sublime joy of discovery that comes when a previously unknown musician is introduced to your musical world and eventually takes up permanent residence there.
It was ten years ago when Hiromi Uehara released her debut, Another Mind. I was on my way to Nashville for a journalism workshop and I tossed the album in the bag along with the rest of the music for the road trip. The acoustics of a car are not the optimum listening environment, but traveling for six hours and almost 400 miles gave me plenty of opportunity to thoroughly explore the Japanese born, Berklee College of Music educated pianist.
It’s easy to view Another Mind as Hiromi’s graduating thesis paper set to music. Among her mentors at Berklee was jazz bassist Richard Evans who taught arranging and orchestration, two skills she has put to fine usage. Evans produced his student’s debut along with his friend and colleague, Ahmad Jamal, another stylish and visionary pianist whom Miles Davis name-checks several times in his autobiography as a major influence.
“She is nothing short of amazing,” Jamal said, “Her music, together with her overwhelming charm and spirit, causes her to soar to musical heights.”
Eight albums, two in-concert details, and collaborations with Chick Corea (Duet) and Stanley Clarke as part of an acoustic trio with drummer Lenny White on the exceptional Jazz in the Garden and again on Clarke’s “last” electric album, The Stanley Clarke Band, Hiromi is firmly established as one of the brightest young talents playing today. Esperanza Spalding, her record label mate, gets most of the publicity as the latest “savior” of jazz, but that’s too big of a burden for her to carry alone. Spalding should share the load with Hiromi, Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris and Jason Moran to name a few of the young lions holding true to the tradition even as they push it forward.
The opening notes of “Move” from Hiromi’s newest album of the same name start off with one note being repeated like water drip-drip-dripping from a faucet until Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on contra-bass join together to create what she calls “three-dimensional sound.” Clocking in at over eight minutes in length, Hiromi constructs an elaborate pastiche of elaborate soloing, funky grooves and an interplay with Phillips and Jackson that is both exciting to hear and astonishing to see.
There is always an overarching theme to Hiromi’s recordings and Move is no different. The nine tracks are focused on living life on a normal day. “You wake up and go to work and then hang out, she says. “The album is like a soundtrack for a day.”
If Move is any indication Hiromi’s days must be pretty busy. She’s a serious person who takes the music seriously but she has always balanced her creative temperament by not taking herself too seriously. Her approach to the music has always been while a song like “Move” is a labor of love, it is labor. “It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written,” Hiromi says. “I had great musicians with me, and we worked hard on that song. In the studio and rehearsals, we spent a lot of time to play it right. It’s very tricky because when a song sounds difficult, it’s not fun. It has to groove and it has to go beyond ‘this is a difficult song.’ It has to make you groove and feel the rhythm. To reach that point really took some time. “
You mean you can’t just walk on the stage and just start playing? You have to rehearse and learn how to play the song? No wonder jazz gets treated like an ugly puppy nobody wants to play with. It takes work.
Those that can’t do teach and those that can’t teach, review those that do. That’s what my small little contribution to the health and well-being of jazz has been. It is a source of satisfaction to know I’ve hipped others to Hiromi such as the music critic from the daily newspaper who sat with me at the annual Jazz and Rib Festival and grooved along to her live performance which is as inventive and energetic as her recordings. It’s a good feeling to spread the knowledge about a true talent that actually has paid her dues and is goes about her business without flashing skin, starting beefs, and making a spectacle of herself.
Hiromi’s way is a slow burn to success.. Letting the music instead of the hype do the talking . It seems like such an old-fashioned approach to allow the substance to match the style, but this is what is Hiromi is doing and she continues to do it well. Not everything she tries always works, but it never fails to keep me interested in what she’s doing next. The anticipation of “what’s next?” is what motivated me to follow Miles Davis, Prince and Santana even when they led to creative blind alleys. It hasn’t happened to Hiromi yet. Hiromi has held my interest for a decade now and my trust has been rewarded by her continued innovative, adventurous and dazzling originality.
- Hiromi: Finding Music In The Daily Din (npr.org)
- You: Did you see jazz on the Grammys broadcast Sunday night? (latimes.com)
- Ahmad Jamal: A deliciously talented musician (telegraph.co.uk)