Keiko Matsui Takes A “Journey To the Heart”

Keiko Matsui (photo: © Jordan Perlman. All Rights Reserved. )

Out of pain comes growth and in 2007, Keiko Matsui, emerged from a divorce, record label troubles, and embraced her new singularity by striking out in a bold new direction as she traveled to South Africa, paired up with trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the results was the adventurous Moyo, one of the brightest and best recordings of a 30-year career.

Fast forward nine years and Matsui’s back at it again with Journey To The Heart,  a spirited and joyful project that brims with equal parts euphoric passion and unbridled brilliance as Matsui seems invigorated as a player, composer, and bandleader. Paired with a drum-head tight new band, this is her finest album in nearly a decade.

Don’t call it world beat. Put a Japanese pianist in the studio with a Cuban bassist and drummer, (Del Puerto and Branley) add a guitarist from Peru (Stagnero) and a percussionist from Venzuela (Quintero) then just for grins invite a dazzling harmonica player from Switzerland (Maret) to join in on the festivities, and what you have is Matsui’s 27th album as a leader as she stakes out a bold new direction as she moves into more acoustic music. Intact is her signature precision on the piano and her stately compositions and arrangements.

I don’t have any proof,  but I wonder if Matsui stripping down her sound to a more acoustic setting has anything to do with another Japanese pianist, Hiromi Uehara unplugging with her Trio Project to positive reviews.   It’s possible, if not provable…

It takes supreme confidence in yourself and your fellow musicians to reign in and allow them to take the lead and compliment them instead of relegating them to little more than sidemen. Taking few solos here, Matsui has always been willing to unselfishly share the spotlight as her duet with Greigoire Maret on the riveting “Two Harbors” is ample evidence of.

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“Moving On” and “Carnival” are two romper stompers featuring guitarist Ramon Stagnero who nimbly navigates his way as Matsui trades leads with him until percussionist Luis Quintero brings it home. It’s exciting to follow in a way Matsui’s recent outings with studio pros were not.

Too many musicians reach a stage in their careers where they seemingly say, “That’s good enough. I’ve done a few different things. I can just keep making the same old same old with different titles and it will sell.” Maybe that’s true for a dinosaur rock band content to go on stage and crank out the hits, but for a jazz artist, that is a shortcut to stagnation and musical death.

When jazz musicians play it safe and are content to just make the donuts, it ceases to be jazz and becomes instrumental pop without vocals and who needs that? Keiko Matsui will never get her proper due for remaining true to the spirit of innovators and risk-takers who elevated the idiom, but Journey To The Heart serves as the testimonial she’s richly deserving of the accolades.

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“We need to find that common bond in our hearts. People are dying with violence, hunger and war. This music is my new journey,” explains  Matsui. “It is an evolution in many ways. I hope I can make a path and make some noise and leave a positive effect on the world. This is my mission and I am dedicating my music to this cause.”
Track Listing: Moving On; Carnival; The Edge of Twilight; Butterfly; Casablanca; Journey To The Heart; Havana Nights; New Beginning; Two Harbors; Blue Rose

Personnel: Keiko Matsui: piano; Carlitos Del Puerto: bass; Jimmy Branley: drums; Ramon Stagnero: guitars; Luis Quintero: percussion; Gregoire Maret: harmonica; JP Mourao; additional guitar (2), Randy Waldman; string arrangement (4, 6, 8); Gary Stockdale: string arrangement (10)

Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Shanachie Records | Style: Modern Jazz

(This review originally appeared in a different form at All About Jazz)

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Hiromi and The Piano In the “Spark.”

 

If you don’t know who Hiromi is yet you’re probably reading the wrong article. And listening to the wrong music.

There are three reasons why some people will not enjoy Spark, the fourth album from the Trio Project featuring Hiromi Uehara, the Japanese-born pianist and composer and drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson:

1. It’s too complex.

2. It rocks too hard to be jazz.

3. It’s long (72 minutes).

None of these are good reasons. Here are three reasons which are good ones.

1. Simplicity has its place. So does complexity. 2. Jazz is not a hyphenated word. It’s just jazz. 3. You can’t make and bake a cake in two minutes. Patience is its own reward.

Hiromi continues to be one of the most inventive and awe-inspiring pianists in jazz today. Phillips’ drumming is alternatively both dynamic and precise. Jackson is the silent partner of the band, but is the glue which holds it together so it doesn’t fly apart into undisciplined soloing.

That’s the risk involved in a Hiromi recording. At what point will her dazzling proficiency give way to just spraying notes all around the joint like an Eddie Van Halen freak-out turned up to “11” on the overkill scale? This is an entirely fair comparison. Hiromi can match a guitar god like Van Halen for speed, frenzy and mindless self-indulgence when she goes off.

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“Spark” leads off with a gently synth/piano solo that takes off as soon as Phillips comes in and Hiromi engages in dueling leads as they chase each other in musical game of “tag.” Good luck with figuring out what the time signature is. The stuttering stop-start of “In A Trance” shows off the favored approach of the Trio Project to jazz: aggressive, inventing and very, very fast and furious.

Even when “In A Trance” slows down to a more traditional approach, it isn’t long before it reverts to the highly individualized nature of the players. Phillips launches into a drum solo, shows off some hot licks, and then ends up with some killer fills and cymbals work until Jackson and Hiromi come back in with a vaguely Latin piano riff.

Is “Indulgence” a playful jab at the naysayers who accuse the pianist of being more style than substance? Maybe so and maybe no, but whatever the intent it, along with “What Will Be, Will Be” is a showcase for Jackson’s contrabass guitar work and some mighty fine funky grooves and the restrained solo piano piece “Wake Up and Dream” washes over the listener like warm spring rain.

Like it or not (and some jazzheads don’t), Hiromi is much more than an programmed automaton who can play really fast. The rollicking closer “All’s Well” is funky good fun which connects emotionally on every level. For jazz to resonate beyond its base it has to—repeat—has to develop and promote artists the way rock, pop and country does. It cannot thrive and will not survive unless the new generation is alerted of the new innovators residing among them just beyond their range of hearing. Hiromi is one of those innovators.

Spark is Hiromi’s 10th  album and it’s the 10th album I’ve dug the hell out.   She has to be included on any short or long list of the best pianists in jazz today.  It’s not a coincidence that Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea have both tapped her to join them on solo projects.  She’s just that good and with Phillips and Jackson in tow the Trio Project has been blowing it up over four masterful albums in five years.

Oscar Peterson said, “Too many jazz pianists limit themselves to a personal style, a trademark, so to speak. They confine themselves to one type of playing. I believe in using the entire piano as a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea. I have no one style. I play as I feel.”

Hiromi Uehara is living what Peterson advised. Hers is the piano in the Spark.
Track Listing: Spark; In A Trance; Take Me Away; Wonderland; Indulgence; Dilemma; What Will Be, Will Be; Wake Up And Dream, All’s Well

Personnel: Hiromi: piano, keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums

The best “power trio” since Cream.

A different version of this review originally appeared at All About Jazz

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.

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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 Makes Her “Move”

Don’t shoot me. I’m only the piano player.

In a world where the path to commercial success is to play it safe and keep faith in formula, it is only within jazz where being unpredictable is not only a virtue, but an expectation. Hiromi marks her first decade of music-making on her terrific ninth album, Move featuring her Trio Project with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips.

Reunited with Jackson and Phillips for a second outing after 2011’s superb Voice, (Telarc, 2011) the two veteran musicians provide the Japanese pianist with a rhythm section that can not only keep up with her but push her in a way she wasn’t by her Sonicbloom band. That is not to disparage the talents of drummer Martin Valihora and bassist Tony Grey, but different players bring different dynamics to a band and in Jackson and Phillips rhythm section, Hiromi’s mash-up of post-bop, straight-ahead and rock styles come together in a blistering tour de force.

The majority of Hiromi’s recordings are built around a concept and on Move, it’s “Time in one day.” Think of it not as much of a sequel to Time Control (Telarc, 2007), which focused on a similar theme and featured the ecletic/electric guitar stylings of Dave Fiuczynski, but as an advancement of those themes with the soloing no longer between her piano and Fiuczynski’s guitar as it is with Phillips’ drums.

hiromi_move

Phillips’ background is rooted in rock (Toto, The Who, Judas Priest, David Gilmour) and he brings that attitude to his timekeeping, but that doesn’t mean he can’t swing. Phillips can make it sound pretty when the moment calls for it, but his ferocious approach does take some getting used to. There are traces of Tony Williams and Steve Gadd in the power displays of Phillips as he is given plenty of solo space and he doesn’t squander it. Holding down the bass chores, Jackson is more traditional in his role than his partners, but they also serve those who sit back and go about their business with cool professionalism.

“Move” begins with the a note being repeated until Phillips and Jackson jump in and off we go for 8:34 as it twists and turns in a knotty, intricate and difficult composition. It’s exhausting, but in the way a thrill ride at an amusement park is. The moments of power and glory are matched by quieter ones that are graceful and subtle such as “Brand New Day.” That’s what Move is: an audio aerobic work out with moments of kinetic, frenetic movement followed by time to cool down and cool out a bit. At times there wasn’t enough of a blend between the two on Voice and Hiromi strikes a happy balance here.

The “Escapism” suite (“Reality,” “Fantasy,” “In Between”) is the centerpiece of a nearly 70-minute recording. Everything that either impresses or infuriates Hiromi’s fans and critics can be found here. As an artist with supreme confidence in herself, it’s doubtful whether Hiromi herself gives much thought to how her compositions are received. Calling it jazz doesn’t quite seem to fit, but calling it rock doesn’t do it either.

You want a power trio? Here’s a power trio.

One way to look at what Hiromi and company are doing is to equate what they’re trying with another band they seemingly have little in common with. Take Rush, the Canadian power rock trio, and swap out Alex Liefson’s guitar for Hiromi’s piano, sub-in Phillips for drummer Neil Peart and ditch Geddy Lee’s vocals but hand the bass duties to Jackson and the fundamentals are pretty much the same except now this is a power jazz trio.

Move operates on an entirely different level from Hiromi’s previous releases. It is less exploratory, yet it never plays it safe and retains her highly developed sense of fun. Are there are moments when she needs to throttle back just a bit? Sure, as her synthesizer solos are more about sound effects than saying anything bold or particularly innovating, but carping on that is like griping LeBron James isn’t as exciting executing a jump shot as a slam dunk. Even a fan will find moments where the wall of sound approach of Hiromi and co-producer Michael Bishop is a bit loud or showy for the sake of showmanship. That is part of what the Trio Project is about; combining complexity with technical brilliance, but never losing sight of the fun aspect. “One size fits all” doesn’t work for socks and it sure doesn’t apply here.

For those who’ve been along for the ride that began with the debut of Another Mind (Telarc, 2003) this represents an another incredibly inspired stop in Uehara’s decade-long pursuit of innovation and excellence. Not everyone will understand or enjoy what she is trying to do, but those who punched their tickets a decade ago will likely consider Move an early contender for Album of the Year. It certainly belongs in the conversation of whatever albums are.

Track Listing: Move: Brand New Day; Endeavor; Rainmaker; Suite Escapism: Reality; Suite Escapism: Fantasy; Suite Escapism; In Between; Margarita!; 11:49 PM

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

This review originally published at All About Jazz

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.