Jazz, but not by the (real) book

Jazz, but not by the (re

November 9, 2009 03:00

Waif-like thin with spiky jet-black hair and a sassy look, Hiromi isn't your standard jazz pianist. And like Sting, Pink, Bono or Slash, she even boasts the one-name moniker of a classic flashy rocker. But the musically adventurous 30-year-old Japanese virtuoso refuses to be pigeonholed into any musical label. With an Ipod play list that ranges from Bach and Frank Zappa to Oscar Peterson and King Crimson, it's clear that she can't be. And, indeed, her vibrant fusion of classical, psychedelic jazz and rock that's spurred on by a cheerleading-like enthusiasm proves there's no need for labels when it comes to Hiromi Uehara. "I don't want to put a name on my music," she says on her Web site. "Other people can put a name on what I do. It's just the union of what I've been listening to and what I've been learning." There's been a sharp learning curve between the time Hiromi burst onto the public's band width with her 2003 debut, Another Mind, and the 2008 release of Beyond Standard, featuring her band Sonicbloom. With high-profile collaborations with the likes of Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke in between, today she's considered one of the brightest - and most energetic - performers on the jazz scene. So much so that, following a wildly successful local debut at the Red Sea Festival in 2005 and a return performance the next year, she's making her third appearance in Israel in four years, on November 14th at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv. It's a long way from Shizuoka, Japan, where Hiromi was born in 1979 and where, six years later, she took her first piano lesson. "It was very acceptable in Japan for children to learn instruments, especially the piano, which is a very popular instrument," Hiromi told The Jerusalem Post from New York, where she was winding up a tour with Clarke. "Of course, my parents didn't think I would become a professional musician." BY AGE 14, Hiromi was already playing with orchestras, even traveling Czechoslovakia to perform with the Czech Philharmonic. A chance meeting with piano legend Corea in Tokyo when she was 17 cemented Hiromi's increasing interest in jazz as her primary mode of expression. "He was doing something at Yamaha, and I was visiting Tokyo at the time to take some lessons," Hiromi recounts on her Web site. "I sat down with him, and he said 'Play something.' So I played something, and then he said, 'Can you improvise?' I told him I could, and we did some two-piano improvisations. Then he asked me if I was free the next day. I told him I was, and he said, 'Well, I have a concert tomorrow. Why don't you come?' So I went there, and he called my name at the end of the concert, and we did some improvisations together." From that heady experience, Hiromi retreated into the world of composing music for advertisements, specifically Japanese auto firm Nissan. "It was a lot of fun writing jingles," she told the Post. "You have a certain landscape you're given and you try to compose music for it. It's not that different than writing songs. I think I could write hit pop songs," she added with a laugh. But by the time she turned 20, Hiromi's professional aspirations drew her to the US, where she studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and expanded her musical horizons beyond recognition. "I met so many amazing musicians at Berklee, it was like a treasure box," she said. Among her contacts in Boston were veteran jazz bassist Richard Evans, who taught arranging and orchestration, and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, who ended up co-producing Hiromi's debut album. Both have acted as mentors for the young pianist. It was also at Berklee that she met her two accompanists that make up Sonicbloom - Antony Philip Gray on bass and Martin Valihora on drums, along with later addition guitarist David Fiuczynski. Hiromi noted that the telepathy developed by the band is paramount to the their live shows. "I do a lot of improvisation in concert, and the band just has to catch up with me. I do coordinate some things with them, but mostly we listen to each other and try to have a musical conversation," she said. "We know each other's habits and where things are headed, but we always try to find a new landscape." BUT HIROMI isn't content to confine herself to just one set of performers. Recently, she collaborated with Corea to produce the live album Duet, which was recorded at the Tokyo Blue Note. And she has since joined Clarke on his latest studio effort Jazz in the Garden, leading to their just completed tour. The San Francisco Examiner described the show as "dizzying," and called Hiromi "as dazzling a ball of energy as I've ever seen on stage." "Every minute playing with Stanley is a learning experience. Playing with a living legend like him is incredible," said Hiromi. Not one to rest on her laurels, Hiromi will be achieving another first early next year when she releases her first solo piano record, Place to Be, described as a musical travelogue of her 20s. "I wanted to record the sound of my twenties for archival purposes," she told an interviewer. "I felt like the people whom I met on the road during my twenties really helped me develop and mature as a musician and as a person. I feel very fortunate to have spent this part of my life traveling to all these places and making people happy. This record is a thank you to them." That theme was riffed on, when Hiromi was asked by the Post awhether she was looking forward to returning to Japan for a series of shows immediately following her Tel Aviv concert. "I get to eat food I grew up with, so in that respect, it's like being home," she said. "But as far a performances go, every place is special for me to perform, and to meet new people. I'm just trying to enjoy the musical journey."

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