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

The Grammys and all that jazz.

Nice stunt, Pink, but what's it got to do with music?

I used to play DJ for parties.  I’ve reviewed music since I was in college.  When I moved into my house the biggest and heaviest item I had was my record (yes, vinyl records) collection and I’ve interviewed a lot jazz artists over the course of my writing career.  So when  I was asked what I thought about The Grammy Awards all I had was a blank look.

Yes, I do love music.   The Grammy Awards are about entertainment.   They aren’t about music.

I don’t watch the Grammys.  I don’t care who wins the Grammys.   Is Sade showing up?  No?   Then I’m not interested.

Don’t care about the winners.  Don’t care about the losers.   Just don’t care.

In the immortal words of Public Enemy, Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?

The Grammys aren’t about music.   It’s about dressing up and being seen and pairing hot new kids with grizzled old vets even with the duets make no damn sense.    I’m told the highlight I missed out on was Pink singing “Glitter in the Air”  as she’s suspended in upside down in the air and doused with water.   I’ve since caught the video and it’s a cool stunt, but what if anything does it have to do wit music.   Was this Pink public try out for for Cirque Du Soleil or something?

One of my Facebook friends , a member of a well-known vocal group best described the spectacle of the Grammy Awards by asking,  “Do we have to climb on a rope and twirl around while singing Miles Davis??? I’m just asking!”

Jazz doesn’t fare very well at these award shows.   Yeah, Herbie Hancock cleaned up last year with his tribute to Joni Mitchell album, but typically jazz artists aren’t part of the television broadcast and barely get a mention.  The late Joe Zawinul won for the album 75, an album I enjoyed but wasn’t my choice for the best jazz release of the 2009.

My choice was a an album that didn’t even get a  nomination.   Jazz in the Garden by The Stanley Clarke Trio was my favorite contemporary jazz album of 2009.   Here’s what I had to say about it for All About Jazz.com.

Is there a more prodigiously talented, but more annoyingly inconsistent artist than Stanley Clarke? A trip through the Clarke catalog reveals some brilliant masterpieces, many that are merely okay and a few that are bona fide turkeys. Doing things with an electric bass that no one else can, it’s precisely because he is so good that he has to keep restlessly experimenting to prevent becoming bored.

Rather than being bored on Jazz in the Garden, Clarke is at the top of his game. Reunited with Return to Forever compatriot/drummer Lenny White, Clarke sounds invigorated as he steps away from the electric excursions that made him the gold standard for awe-struck admirers, going unplugged for a joyous return to acoustic bass.

Clarke can call on just about any pianist in the world to join his trio, but chose Japanese-born and Berklee-trained Hiromi Uehara to tickle the ivories. Those who have followed the growth of her career will know Hiromi is an unexpected but completely appropriate choice for the trio. No junior member, she more than holds her own with her two veteran partners.

Taking the rhythm section from one of the premier bands of jazz-fusion and pairing it with Hiromi–a hard-charger head-turner capable of straight-ahead, hard bop and wildly avant-garde with equal aplomb–suggests there’s going to be fireworks. There are, but the simultaneous blend of traditional and modernistic is completely unexpected.

“Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)” is a shout-out to Barack Obama’s victory. It may sound as though Clarke is playing electric bass at times, but he’s not cheating. He’s just so good that he’s able to squeeze sounds from an acoustic bass that sound electric.

Hiromi contributes two originals–the beautiful “Sicilian Blue” and boppish “Brain Training,” where White rides the cymbals while Clarke riffs along underneath her swinging piano. “Sakura Sakura” is a traditional Japanese ballad that gets an interesting rework.

“Global Tweak” is an improvised duet between Clarke and Hiromi and, despite their differences in age, culture (and height!), the artificial differences are swept away by two talented musicians just jamming and going where the music takes them.

Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” features White’s drums splashing and banging brightly. Equally impressive is Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” Clarke’s tribute to his old employer and Miles Davis’ “Solar.” Hiromi’s playing on Clarke’s “3 Wrong Notes” makes clear that she’s one of the most interesting young lions in jazz today.

What’s a Red Hot Chili Peppers song doing on an acoustic jazz trio boasting compositions by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Joe Henderson? Fitting in quite nicely, courtesy of Hiromi’s rearrangement. Like Clarke, Hiromi isn’t easily pigeonholed into tidy categories, and has reworked rock ‘n’ roll into jazz motifs before with Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots” on Beyond Standard (Telarc, 2008).

Jazz in the Garden is an unexpected surprise that makes for superb listening. It is highly recommended, both for Clarke fans and those looking for a reason to become one.

The Stanley Clarke Trio at work, but getting no play.

I hope no one thinks this is a middle-age man ranting about  Lady GaGa, Taylor Swift or Beyonce not being as good as the music acts I grew up with.   I recognize the Grammys celebrate what’s popular.   That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be good—and it never was about what’s good.  One-and-done hit wonders like Milli Friggin’ Vanilli got nominated and The Starland Vocal Band walked away with a Best New Artist award, so who associates the Grammys with long, distinguished careers or actual talent?  Not me.

Jazz accounts for a tiny part of  music industry sales.  Jazz artists play clubs, not stadiums.  When Quincy Jones decides it’s time to record a new version of “We Are the World” he invites Taylor Swift and Lil’ Wayne, not George Duke and Branford Marsalis.    You don’t get more steeped in jazz than “Q” but he knows when you want to sell something you keep jazz far, far away from the proceedings.

If someone finds the Grammys a fun time, I’m cool with it.   Just don’t try to sell me on the idea that they mean a damn thing because they don’t.