Hiromi Comes “Alive”

Not the savior of jazz and doesn't want to be.

Not the savior of jazz and doesn’t want to be.

 

If jazz has become a niche market in the music industry (and it has), a contributing factor for its slide into cultural irrelevance is a failure to promote and support new artists. No matter what sub-genre of jazz you personally love, across the board there is no sustained effort to develop a roster of first-tier talent in jazz. Every so often along comes a Esperanza Spalding who joins the long list of earlier “saviors” of jazz such as Wynton Marsalis or Robert Glasper and is saddled with the unasked-for responsibility of reviving interest in the incredibly shrinking jazz field.

Writing in The Root, Frank McCoy painted a gloomy picture for the idiom, “It’s even harder in jazz today as CD/album sales have plummeted. In 1999 the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said that jazz sales were 3 percent of all recording sales. By 2008 they were 1.1 percent. In 2000 Soundscan reported that 18,416 jazz albums were sold; nine years later, fewer than 12,000 jazz-genre albums were purchased.”

For jazz not only to thrive, but survive, it must begin to create its own superstars who can deliver a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the flagging art form, but have skills in social media and marketing, creating a global brand, and finding new forms beyond record sales, radio play and live gigs in fewer clubs and concert halls to reach the new breed of jazz fans.

Hiromi Uehara is uniquely positioned to be a leader in the vanguard of bold creative minds revitalizing jazz. At 35, the pianist from Shizuoka, Japan, has over the span of nine albums as a bandleader and solo artist demonstrated how well she absorbed the tutoring of Ahmad Jamal and bassist Richard Evans when she matriculated at the Berklee College of Music. Hiromi has led two separate bands, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom and The Trio Project and stints with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, as well as a duet with Chick Corea have solidified her credentials as one of the best and brightest young musicians in contemporary jazz.

Hiromi_Alive_jaw

Matching her inclination for improvisation, drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson hold down the rhythm responsibilities, freeing up Hiromi to do things with a piano most human beings can’t begin to imagine doing. Alive might be the finishing stroke in a trilogy of adventurous albums for the band. Nothing definite has been said by Hiromi that the group has run its course, but there is a sense of finality in the third Trio Project. Always a restless soul, it’s an open question how long Hiromi will continue this collaboration.

With Voice (Telarc, 2011) and its sequel, Move! (Telarc, 2012), Hiromi found in Phillips a drummer who could match her high velocity piano playing blow-for-blow. Jackson is the silent partner in the band who rarely takes solos and simply does his job with equal parts efficiency and creativity. He’s given opportunities to step out on Alive, but Jackson’s temperament leans to deferring to his colleagues when it’s time to let it all hang out. Overlength is at times an issue with four tracks going nine minutes in length, two clocking in at eight minutes. “Seeker” and “Firefly” both push past over seven minutes and at 6:49, the closing “Life Goes On” draws the shortest straw. Play strong, play long is the philosophy of The Trio Project, which is not a criticism, but to fully appreciate Alive , completed in only three days with Michael Bishop handling co-producing duties along with Hiromi.

Alive makes no bones about being a deep dive that necessitates several listens to fully grasp the complexity of Hiromi’s compositions., but it deserves it.  This is not simple music nor a record one pops into the CD player during a pizza run.

Sandwiched between the four albums with her Sonicbloom band and the trio of Trio Projects is Place To Be (Concord, 2010) Hiromi’s solo piano exercise where she proved even accompanied only by a piano she is a force to be reckoned with . When David Fiuczynski came aboard for 2007’s Time Control (Telarc) Hiromi could finally realize her jazz and rock synthesis with a guitarist as expressive (and equally prone to occasionally lapsing into excursions of stylistic excess) as herself. Phillips fills that role now far more harmonically than Fiuczynski whom occasionally had to struggle to be heard over Hiromi’s piano pyrotechnics.

Hiromi ‘s trust in her bandmates (and herself) free herself to simply play instead of continually dazzle with an onslaught of prodigious speed and technique. “Dreamer” is an example of that restraint with Phillips and Hiromi duking it out on their respective instruments until the 8:04 mark where they both pull back and gracefully close the frenzy with an understated climax. “Seeker” gives Jackson’s contrabass a soulful groove for his partners to work around and have some fun.

Ahmad Jamal nailed it when he observed, “Hiromi has discovered her own genre, and continues to pursue it with great sensitivity, energy, and dazzling virtuosity.” As time passes and her experience grows, Hiromi has not only become a better player, but a better listener. Compare the tasteful understatement of 2014 version of Hiromi onthe elegant “Firefly” with the frenetic, bug-on-a-hot-stove of 2004’s “Kung-Fu World Champion” and the difference is like that of night and day.

Dare we call Alive the dreaded “F” word? Fusion? Yes, and deservedly so even if this is not your daddy’s  jazz fusion. Even without the electric guitar of a John McLaughlin, or the arsenal of synthesizers employed by Herbie Hancock, The Trio Project is a legitimate inheritor of the legacy left by Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius when Weather Report called it a day.

That’s heavy company, but Hiromi’s Trio Project is one of the most consistently exciting and accomplished bands making music in any genre of music. Period. End of sentence. That it is also flying under the radar of most consumers is a sad commentary on jazz today, yet still provides hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Track Listing: Alive; Wanderer; Dreamer; Seeker; Player; Warrior; Firefly; Spirit; Life Goes On.

Personnel: Hiromi Uehara: keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums.

Record Label: Telarc Records

Hiromi_3_photo_by_Muga_Miyahara

“No, I don’t know any Peter Frampton songs, silly. “

Hiromi’s Slow Burn to Success

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.