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 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.

Jazz Needs Fewer Critics and More Fans

“Gimme a good review, Jeff!” You got it, George.

It’s been a little quiet around here.  I wasn’t planning on taking a Christmas break, but the demands of work and home call and would not be denied.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Either you’re going to do something or you’re not. If you really want to drop 25 pounds or find another job or scale the Himalayas then you will. Or you won’t.

A new year doesn’t just mark new beginnings, it can mean the end of old ways and old relationships. That’s why 2013 will be the year I stop reviewing jazz.   I’m  not having a crisis of confidence and I haven’t given up jazz in favor of death metal or country  music.   It is time to put a fork in it.   After a decade of writing and listening to jazz, I’ve used up all the words I have.  I don’t have an original thought left in me.

For months now there has been a half-dozen albums sitting on my desk waiting for me to review…and waiting..and waiting.   Some of the CDs are quite good actually.  A few are okay and one or two are totally lame.   My problem is I can’t work up any enthusiasm for even the ones I like.  It’s not exactly writer’s block.   I’m numb to it and in some ways that’s worse than not being unable to come up with 500 words for a review.

You! Go out and listen to some jazz!

I’ve contributed to All About Jazz since 2006 and written 102 reviews and several interviews. The career-spanning conversation I had with the .great George Duke was one of the best I’ve ever conducted and after it was published I knew I’d never write another for AAJ. It was epic in length, exhaustive in the research and limited in impact.  The Duke interview generated over 17,000 page hits. That’s a nice number.  For a blog post.  In relation to the time and effort I put into it the result was a big disappointment.

That’s was the point where I began to wonder, “Does this really make any difference to anyone?”

After close to a decade of writing reviews for AAJ and Jazz Review.com, I’m gratified for all the music I’ve been allowed to hear and the artists I’ve been allowed to interview. Speaking with Patti Austin, Keiko Matsui, Harvey Mason, George Benson, Rachel Z., Everette Harp, Gerri Allen, Cheryl Bentyne, Jane Monheit, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jessy J., Nestor Torres, Chris Standring, Al Jarreau and Cindy Bradley among others was big fun. Musicians are my most favorite persons to interview.

Yet I’m frustrated that the following of jazz is so small. I’m frustrated when an artist asks me what the best venue for live jazz in town is and my answer is “There isn’t one.” I’m frustrated even when I give a jazz release a four-star rating, it will be nearly impossible to walk into what’s left of the music section of a Wal-Mart, Best Buy or Barnes & Noble and buy it.

Check out Billboard’s 2012 Year-End Charts for Jazz Albums and you know what sold the best?  A Michael Buble Christmas album!   Michael Buble?  Are you yanking me?

Can the savior of jazz get a chair?

It gets worse.  The top Five is rounded out by Duets II by Tony Bennett, Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney, Dead Sinatra’s Best of the Rest, and That’s Life from Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., whom I’ve never heard of, but I guess he was on “American Idol” so that makes him a big deal.   The first album I’ve even heard of is Esperanza Spalding‘s Radio Music Society at No. 6 ( and I thought it was lousy).

My favorite jazz recording of 2012 was Najee’s  The Smooth Side of Soul which came in at #26.   It’s been that kind of year.

Jazz is not dead. It’s not even sick. As long as there are young artists still playing pianos, strumming guitars, pounding drums and blowing horns, the tradition carries on. What I fear is jazz being ignored. You don’t hear it on the radio. You never see it on television. Jazz is not the music of the young. It’s a tough time to be a fan if you don’t live in a city with a jazz scene or radio stations that still program it.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to Hiromi’s  “Move” upcoming in March.    The Japanese piano virtuoso has been a consistently interesting talent whose rise I’ve followed since 2003.    When Hiromi released her third album Brain in 2006,  I positively bubbled with excitement.   THIS is why we love jazz. It’s exciting to see an artist develop. It’s thrilling to hear how self-assured and confident a group of musicians can become when they learn, grow and develop their talents together. It’s a joyous and satisfying experience when it all comes together in a burst of aesthetic brilliance. “

I meant every hyperbolic word, but I don’t get that feeling as often from as many jazz artists any longer.

I may not give up critiquing jazz entirely, but I will ring down the curtain on my AAJ contributions. My taste in jazz  always were more mainstream than the majority of their writers.   I know a lot about jazz artists, but many times AAJ’s annual  “Best of” lists  didn’t have a single name on it I recognized.   There isn’t much use for someone who prefers  Fourplay,  Jeff Lorber or Norman Brown to some Yugoslavian thumb piano player.

My love for jazz  still runs strong, but I’ve run out of words to express that love.  I began covering this music because I wanted to spread what Kirk Whalum calls “the gospel according to jazz.”   I’m still  excited by its endless energy and uncanny creativity, but I have doubts I’ve been as effective advocate for jazz as I hoped I would.  Looking at  what is currently riding high on the smooth jazz charts and it’s more like “snooze jazz” to me.

Maybe what jazz needs are fewer critics getting the music for free and more paying fans to keep it alive.

Jazz doesn’t need saviors. It needs supporters.

Ladies Night at the Jazz Club

"Keep playin' that rock n' roll..."

Here’s a pair of CD reviews that appeared on All About Jazz and since they usually pop up in strange places on the web, I might as well run them on my own site before finding them stuck up somewhere else.

I’m starting to find quotes from my reviews showing up in the promotional materials for jazz artists.  I guess I should feel flattered but it just seems a bit weird.   On the other hand,  it’s nice to be taken seriously.   Every now and then it even gets me into concerts so there is that.

HIROMI – VOICE (Telarac)

f there’s no guitar are you playing rock n’ roll? If there’s no vocals does it make any sense to call an album Voice? Sure it does because after all, this is a Hiromi record and, while there is no guitar within earshot, there is plenty of rocking and rolling going on.

Voice is not—repeat—not a rock album or a jazz-rock album—or fusion or any other such hybrid. It’s a jazz record and the seventh Hiromi album is much like the six preceding it: High on energy and higher even still on innovation, improvisation and originality. The concept behind Voice is Hiromi’s belief that the voice that never speaks can be the most powerful of all.

Rock isn’t just turned up guitars and grown out hair. It’s every bit as much about attitude. Or just call it swagger. Hiromi’s approach to playing piano is to play with passion and vitality with a little swagger thrown in and what comes out is an album that, when it’s not in your ears, is in your face, demanding rapt attention.

It rocks, because Simon Phillips plays drums not like he’s part of a jazz trio, but still gigging with The Who, Judas Priest and Toto. This is not just Hiromi’s album, but Phillips’ as well, as he makes his presence felt on every track. In the absence of a screaming guitar, Phillips pounds and thunders away on what is best described as “lead drums.”

The overall effect is pretty amazing. “Flashback” kicks off with Hiromi on the low end of her piano and, as Phillips and Jackson come in, it’s off to the races, with the pianist and drummer sharing the leads while Jackson holds down the bottom. On “Desire,” Hiromi and Phillips duke it out in a piano vs. drums battle that is pure fun. Phillips gets multiple opportunities to run through his repertoire, and he doesn’t seem to mind one little bit. With Phillips in the drum chair, Voice features some of the toughest and most vigorous drumming on a jazz record since the prime of Billy Cobham‘s solo career.

Phillips was recommended to Hiromi by bassist Stanley Clarke, which figures, since Phillips played with guitarist Jeff Beck on There and Back (Epic, 1980), and Hiromi covered Beck’s jazz-rock classic, “Led Boots” on Beyond Standard (Telarc, 2008). Bassist Anthony Jackson has a more traditional role, but gets his licks in as he steps in for Clarke on “Labyrinth,” a composition Hiromi penned for The Stanley Clarke Band. Jackson previously appeared as a guest musician on Hiromi’s Another Mind (Telarc, 2003) and Brain (Telarc, 2004), and while he doesn’t dominate the proceedings as much as his band mates he doesn’t blend into the wallpaper either.

Even on the solo piano piece, “Haze,” Hiromi busily explores just how many preconceptions she can blow with her weapon of choice. Beethoven didn’t know anything about the blues or jazz, but Hiromi does, and her finger work proves it on “Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathetique,” along with some subtle embellishments from Jackson and Phillips.

No vocals, no lyrics, no guitars. No problem. It’s not rock n’ roll but Voice still rocks.

CINDY BRADLEY: UNSCRIPTED (Trippin’ N’ Rhythm)

Every now and then a musician gets bold and breaks the mold. Cindy Bradley’s Unscripted is the sound of an artist just going for it. The nearly eight-minute “Prelude/Massive Transit/Interlude” suite that kicks off the album is like a rush of cool air to the face on a hot summer day. It’s fast, furious and funky, with Bradley blowing the hell out of her trumpet as she dukes it out with producer Michael Broening’s keyboards and Tim Veder’s sax solos.

Don’t be confused, though. “Massive Transit” is smooth jazz, but it’s still a bit more ambitious than an ordinary bit of funk. It builds upon itself and keeps going with one hard groove after another, goosed along by Broening’s horn arrangement and a bass line by Ernie Donadelle that is irresistibly compelling.

Next up is an impressive take on Wayne Shorter‘s “Footprints” and a gorgeously lush version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Bradley interjects some moody blues soloing over Broening’s arrangements, as they do not try so much to interpret the originals slavishly note for note as to pay homage to two familiar tunes.

The first half of Unscripted is so strong that the middle sags a little, as “Lifted” sounds pretty, but breaks no new ground. If “Deja Blue,” and “Pink Slip” are a bit more familiar, they also give Bradley a chance to show off her trombone chops. The final three selections—”Inevitable,” “Interlude” and the resplendent “One Moment More”—bring a satisfying close to Bradley’s sophomore effort and will continue to make her one of the most respected artists in contemporary jazz genre.

Bradley’s confidence as a player is apparent on every track of Unscripted. On the previous Bloom (Trippin’ n’ Rhythm, 2009), she hung back and deferred to Broening and the other musicians as though she was following their lead. That’s over now, as she delivers fully accomplished, award-winning music. Bradley was named the Best New Artist at the 2010 American Contemporary Jazz Awards, and followed that up with two Oasis Awards, for Best Brass Player and Best New Artist.

The title is slightly misleading. There may not have been a script for Unscripted, but there is definitely a plan and Bradley is executing it to perfection. This is a highly rewarding sophomore effort from Bradley and establishes her as someone on the short list of jazz artists well worth following to see what comes next.

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

One Year in Jazz: Nine of the Best and One of the Worst.

"Best Album of the Year? Me?"

1. Chris Standring/Blue Bolero: Playing jazz in America would serve as a great cover for someone in the witness protection program. A musician can labor at jazz for years and put together a nice body of work, but the music industry, the media, and the public may barely notice in their search for the next teenage pop star.

Chris Standring has never made an album quite like Blue Bolero. Standring could have stayed in a smooth jazz comfort zone of safe and innocuous music. Low risk can mean high reward, but Standring chose to go a different, riskier and far more ambitious route. The result is an album he should be both pleased with and proud of.

There are signature moments in a musician’s career when they make an album that both defines them and sets the course for their future. Herbie Hancock had his with Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973), Weather Report reached their summit with Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977), and George Benson took off with Breezin’ (Warner Brothers, 1976). Whether or not Blue Bolero belongs in that kind of distinguished company is a judgment call, but it is the best album Standring has made yet.

2.  Fourplay/Let’s Touch the Sky: For Fourplay, it’s all a numbers game. 2011 marks the band’s 20th anniversary, Let’s Touch the Sky is their 12th album, and “new guy,” Chuck Loeb is both Fourplay’s third personnel change and third guitarist replacing Larry Carlton, who stepped in for Lee Ritenour in 1998.

Loeb has the advantage of appearing on several of James’ solo albums, and that familiarity serves him well, as his guitar is featured early on his own “3rd Degree.” Loeb’s style meshes well with the signature Fourplay radio friendly tunes, but his playing is noticeably funkier than Carlton, and his familiarity with James would seem to indicate his period of adjustment into this supergroup will be a relatively quick one.

Changes in personnel can be leading indicators of a band reaching the end of the line. Not this time. If anything James, Mason and East seem invigorated by their new playmate. Loeb is a perfect fit, and with his addition to the group as both a composer and player, Fourplay is well situated to continue on both artistically and commercially as a force with which to be reckoned.

3.  Stanley Clarke/The Stanley Clarke Band: Stanley Clarke is still playing the bass the way he wants to, still pulling sounds out of his assortment of electric, acoustic and Alembic basses like nobody else, and still slapping, plucking and thumbing his way through contemporary, fusion jazz, rock, funk and whatever else he puts his mind to.

Clarke, in all his improvisations and incarnations as an artist, has never distanced himself from his jazz-rock roots. “Larry Has Traveled 11 Miles and Waited a Lifetime for the Return of Vishnu’s Report,” despite its clumsy title, is a well-intentioned homage to the genre’s giants including drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Weather Report, trumpeter Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra among others.

There’s a sense of closure from The Stanley Clarke Band and it’s quite deliberate. Clarke says he’s done with making electric albums for a while. Aged 59, Clarke has considerable and deserved pride in what he’s accomplished as a composer and musician and whatever direction his future endeavors take him in, his legacy is already secured. He is to the electric bass what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar; an unparalleled virtuoso who sets the standard for others to follow even as they create their own legacies.

4. The Trio of Oz: The dilemma for modern jazz artists is how to grab the ears of younger audiences, while remaining respectful of the legacy of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong without recycling yet another variation of “So What?” The eclectic and restless musical tastes of drummer Omar Hakim and pianist Rachel Nicolazzo (aka Rachel Z) offer some mighty impressive bait to reel them in, The Trio of Oz‘s repertoire reading like an hour’s worth of college radio station programming.

Whenever jazz is in danger of becoming safe, static and scared to stray out of its comfort zone, that’s when it’s in the fast lane to becoming the Muzak for museums naysayers already claim it is. The Trio of Oz strikes that delicate balance between respecting tradition while refusing to be handcuffed by it. There’s a lot here, in one of 2010’s most brilliant debuts for both purists and pioneers to admire.

5. George Duke/Deja Vu: Duke is a proven funk master, highly successful producer, underrated pianist and masterful entertainer who, while never taking himself too seriously, never takes his jazz roots for granted, no matter how often he’s accused of abandoning them. Déjà Vu is a splendid, high energy and completely satisfying record by Duke, who has mastered the delicate art of looking back while simultaneously moving forward.

6.  Mindi Abair/In Hi-Fi Stereo: As soul music has vanished from urban radio, driven out by the predominance of rap, hip-hop and Auto Tune, it’s become harder to find real soul made with real instruments, either on record or on the airwaves.

A Mindi Abair album is not the go-to place that comes to mind for a showcase of old school soul and bluesy funk. Abair has carved out a niche as a capable, if not always inspired, smooth jazz saxophonist, cut from the cloth of her contemporaries Kenny G., Richard Elliot and others, whom occasionally dip a toe into R&B, but never totally immerse themselves in the idiom.

Once again, the danger of making assumptions is proven, because with In Hi-Fi Stereo Abair takes the plunge headfirst into the deep end of soul-infused jazz. Equal parts homage to the music of David Sanborn, Hank Crawford and The Crusaders offer a testimony of her own artistic growth. Abair makes a declarative statement that she is a formidable talent who can do far more than smooth jazz noodling.

7.  Hiromi/Place To Be: Some musicians take the tortured artist thing too far. With their on-stage, “in the zone” demeanor, some pianists look as if they’re on the verge of a heart attack. If they relaxed a bit would anyone think less of them? Hiromi Uehara is certainly a serious musician yet never leaves the impression of taking herself too seriously. She’s having too much fun for that.

Since her 2003 debut, Another Mind (Telarc), Hiromi has straddled genres of post-bop, acid jazz, and freewheeling improvisation while refusing to be neatly categorized. A leader in her own right and an accompanist,she’s proven herself to be no neophyte and for seven years through growth and development, she continues to create challenging music that is both edifying and gratifying.

8.  Sade/Soldier of Love: The best thing about Sade Adu is also the worst thing about Sade Adu: her near fanatical commitment to consistency. There’s no difference between vintage Sade and contemporary Sade. She’s the antithesis of the snowfall cliché: with Sade you always know exactly what you’re going to get.

Soldier of Love is Sade’s first album in a decade, and only the sixth by the group in 25 years. Flooding the market with material is not a crime Adu can be accused of. However, while this is a new album it’s the same sort of music Sade has been making all along.

Soldier of Love seems longer than its tidy 41 minutes. It might be because, even on the mid-tempo songs like the title track and “Babyfather,” neither Sade Adu the front woman or Sade the band swing. But then, you don’t buy a Sade album because you want to dance. You buy a Sade album because no matter how bad your day’s been, hers has been worse. A lot worse.

9.   Ronny Jordan/After 8: The ninth best album of the year was actually released in 2004, but I didn’t hear it until 2010 and since it’s my list I get to choose my own qualifying criteria.   There’s no shortage of great guitar players in jazz, but so many of them are only recycling riffs from Wes Montgomery/George Benson.   Jordan is going off in different directions as if to say, “”We’ve done that.  Let’s try this.”

 

In a field full of imitators, Jordan is an original and After 8, he goes beyond the acid-jazz/funk and just kicks back to jam.   The result is an album I listen to repeatedly and with the volume turned up high.

…and the WORST album of 2010 was…

10.  The Jazzmasters/The Jazzmasters VI: To understand why Paul Hardcastle’s latest Jazzmasters album is such a tedious drag its first necessary to understand that the multi-instrumentalist has taken an unfortunate interest in a subdivision of smooth jazz, called Chill.

Chill relies on ambient sounds, airy vocals, quietly tinkling keyboards, and the occasional alto sax bubbling away in the mix. It’s so smoothed-out and laid back that it’s nearly comatose. Chill is less ambitious than smooth jazz but not as lightweight as New Age. Take a marshmallow, pour honey over it, dip it in a sugar bowl, then swallow the gooey, gloppy mess whole in one bite. That’s Chill.

Note:  I really, really hated this album.  When I wrote my first review I just dumped all over it for the cardinal sin of being a lazy-ass waste of time.   The editor at All About Jazz rejected the review and we swapped some terse and tense e-mails back and forth over lines like this:

” This is music to peel potatoes, iron clothes and vacuüm the rug by.  This album is so devoid of an impromptu moment,  Hardcastle probably woke up one morning, sipped a cup of coffee, padded off in his slippers and robe to a home studio, banged this out in a few hours and was finished by lunch.”

“This is modern day Muzak that should be piped in the overhead speakers of upscale shopping malls and day care centers to lull unruly pre-schoolers into taking their naps.”

“Jazz” is a catch-all for various genres that are only loosely connected to each other.   Paul Hardcastle has carved out a niche for himself as a staple of the smooth jazz/Chill division, but it takes a certain presumption to proclaim oneself as a “Jazzmaster” when the music barely meets the minimum qualifications.”

I don’t usually like ripping a musician a new one, but Jazzmasters VI didn’t just bore and displease me.   It offended me on a fundamental level.  I gave in to the editor’s wish for a more diplomatic review, but I make no apologies for dogging out the record for the utter piece of shit it was.

To find the rose you gotta  risk the thorns.