Over the past couple of years I”ve been attracted to the progressive sounds of the electric guitar as it has been one of the more defining voices of contemporary jazz in the past couple decades. Lately though, I”ve found myself listening and buying more albums from jazz pianists. Similar to my last jazz review of Rober Glasper, a pianist from the US, today I”m writing about Hiromi Uehara, a pianist from Japan.
At the age of 31, Hiromi is still a toddler in Jazz-years, but her accomplishments already show she will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most accomplished jazz musicians of the modern era. Starting piano at the age of 5 and introduced to jazz at the age of 8, Hiromi played with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 14 and played & recorded with Chick Corea, one of the leading jazz pianists of our time, at the age of 17. Talk about a great start to a career. She went on to study under Ahmad Jamal, another of Jazz Piano”s great”s, while at Berklee. Since 2003, she has been touring the world with her trio, sometimes quartet, and has released 6 albums under her name and 2 DVDs. She”s only 31!!!
There is a reason why she is already so decorated. Listen to her Music. Just listen to it. Every single song an intimate masterpiece in its own right. Thoroughly trained in the Classical tradition, you can the heritage and structured theory in her music. It is almost unbelievable that her sound is only a trio/quartet, when in fact it does often sound like an entire orchestral composition. Her music is colossal. I think it is a pleasurable by-product of those Jazz composers that try to utilize more of their classical roots in their music, very much like Brad Mehldau.
Hiromi still keeps it swinging though. She plays with a ferocity and fire that only comes from a jazz syncopation. But her swing is one that is very rare in the jazz world. While many contemporary jazz greats, like Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Esperanza Spalding, push the boundaries of jazz style, jazz theology, jazz rhetoric, Hiromi pushes the boundaries of jazz”s definition. The only apt metaphor I can think of is from Visual Arts: Hargrove, McBride, Spalding are like Impressionists, Cubists and Surrealists while Hiromi is like an abstract expressionist. The first group explores and redefines the subject matter in new dimensions, while the latter explores the medium itself.
It is such a pleasure to listen to each of Hiromi”s songs. Each one is fundamentally different than the last, in a different paradigm, on a different plane of existence than the last. Hiromi is deeply intrigued by time signatures and musical space. I am guessing this is the direct influence from Ahmad Jamal. Her 2006 album ”Spiral” and 2007 album ”Time Control” are wonderful examples of her exploration in this area.
Yet, within all of this structural experimentalism, Hiromi is extremely lyrical. I think that is probably what holds all her music together so tightly. She presents to you with a lyrical quest to follow while she challenges you to absorb & engage the redefinitions she places around you. Whenever I play her music, I cannot help but stop whatever else I am doing and just exercise my mind and ears. It is mesmerizing work for both the performer and listener.
One final thought I want to tack onto Hiromi”s post. For all you jazz fans out there, if you have never been to Japan, and Tokyo in particular, GO. It is a jazz lover”s fantasy. I am not totally sure about the clear figures, but Japan represents either the #1 or at the very least the #2 jazz market in the world. Its the reason why so many jazz musicians intentionally build their tours to include Japan when they release a new album. Its the reason why Bluenote jazz clubs, the most successful jazz club franchise, at one time had 4 jazz clubs in Japan versus only 2 in the US. But what is more important, is the density of jazz and real jazz lovers in Japan. With America, even in New York, jazz competes with so many other native and popular music forms like hip hop, pop, electronica. Europe, while loving jazz has a deep obsession with classical and electronica. But for some reason, and I think it is the Japanese”s attraction to technical excellence and complex hierarchy, they have since the second world war, fallen head over heels for Jazz. While they also deeply cherish Classical and many other musical forms like hip hop and electronica, Jazz has captured a much larger portion of the listener”s ear. And as is typical of Japanese culture, when they like something, they get obsessively passionate, geeky, and hardcore about it. Walking on the streets of Tokyo I can often find boxes of second-hand classic jazz vinyls on sale, or their record shops have huge sections dedicated to jazz. Jazz artists, even those that are minor names in North America, have significant followings in Japan and Jazz concerts in Japan command a higher price-point and sell out more often.
With this kind of incubative atmosphere, is it such a surprise that a musical genius like Hiromi Uehara can be identified at such an early age as a jazz prodigy and be so intentionally cultivated to her extreme level?
Listen to her music. Hear and feel jazz at its most refined.
Hargrove has not dissapointed since finishing his musical studies at Berklee and New York’s The New School. In the last 20 years he has come out with 17 albums which either bare his name or he was the band leader. Looking up his Wikipedia page, I notice he turns 40 this year. And he is still considered not yet at his prime. Ahh the refreshing expectations of refined excellence from the Jazz world.
I first got acquainted with Roy Hargrove in the late 90′s with some live performance recordings, but he came onto my map in a very big way after his alternative band The RH Factor‘s first release ‘Hard Groove’ in 2003, and then subsequent releases ‘Strength’ (2004) and ‘Distractions’ (2006). Since that time, I’ve been following all of Roy’s releases with great interest. I had the pleasure of watching Roy perform alongside Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker in Hong Kong in 2003 for Hancock’s ‘Directions in Music‘ album tour. Then I saw Roy again in 2007 at the Toronto International Jazz Festival for his ‘Nothing Serious‘ album.
Needless to say I came upon Hargrove’s 2008 album ‘Earfood’ with great anticipation.
The album was hit-and-miss for me. Maybe because I’ve become so familiar with Roy Hargrove’s sound and style, that half of the songs on this album slipped through my eardrums without registering much of any kind of impression.
The first two songs on ‘Earfood’ seem like pointless preamble. He takes two whole songs to set the tone of the album, like a maitre d’ taking an unnecessary amount of time settling you into a comfortable chair. Instead, most people who have ever heard a Roy Hargrove song before already know what kind of sound to expect, and so spending two songs re-educating us on something we already know is a waste of time.
The songs that I did sit up and take notice to were: Strasbourg/St. Denis, Starmaker, The Stinger, Mr. Clean, Style, and Do Wisdom The Prize. Thats 6 out of 13 songs on the album.
Not to say that other songs were unenjoyable, they were. But those other songs are exactly what we’ve come to know and love from Roy Hargrove. Each of the songs are a reenforcement of his brand and persona. The slow, pulsating, intoxicating, smooth sounds of Hargrove’s flugelhorn and the tight assemblage of his band are well appreciated. The problem I have with those other 7 songs is that they don’t offer anything new about Roy.
The 6 songs that I did find intriguing were worthy of mention only because Hargrove allowed his group to be more adventurous with the melody and its arrangement. The use of alternative chords and sounds not normally found in Roy Hargrove’s music were refreshing. It also should be noted that I found the musician that stole the show on the album was Justin Robinson on Alto Sax; not Hargrove himself.
For those that are not familiar with Roy Hargrove, he is perhaps the most accessible of contemporary Jazz’s authentic pioneers, meaning, his style of jazz can be understood or appreciated by the mainstream/non-jazz listener, while still being true to jazz’s form. His music, as it is in this album and on all his albums of the last 10 years, is a modern return to Modal Jazz, the style of jazz made famous by Miles Davis and his ‘Kind of Blue‘ album. Highly melodious, with a pulsing syncopation.
The result is highly pleasurable music, which I guess supports the aptly-named album title ‘Earfood’.
I however, have two bones to pick with my beloved Roy Hargrove, and both pertain to his branding.
The first issue of branding comes from Hargrove’s music. While I understand that a musician, in the process of becoming better known and creating a following, should create a ‘brand’ of music he/she is known for, there is something to be said about growth, experimentation, maturity, and also the occasional change in musical direction. Roy Hargrove is very obviously trying to walk in the footsteps of Miles Davis, but Hargrove has to realize that part of what made Miles Davis such a giant of jazz is not only that he is the highest-selling jazz musician of all time by popularizing modal jazz, but that Miles Davis had the courage, vision, and endurance to shift at 90 degree angles into different musical frontiers (Bebop to Modal to Fusion and back again.) Roy Hargrove has turned heads with the progressive jazz-funk-soul-hiphop sounds of The RH Factor, but the question I come back to listening to ‘Earfood’ is, “Roy, where are you taking us with this?” I’m just hoping that Hargrove’s musical brand can be known as one of evolving and pioneering contemporary modal versus re-playing/maintaining a path of modal jazz we’ve gone through before.
The second issue about branding I have with Roy Hargrove deals with the visual aesthetic. Again, very much trying to emulate Miles Davis in all things look & feel, Roy Hargrove is like the visual incarnation of the Miles Davis from the late 50′s and early 60′s. I sometimes feel that Hargrove tries too hard, or spends too much of his attention on his and his band’s look rather than his and his band’s sound. The thing with Jazz history is that it has been littered with numerous memorable personalities. While many had aesthetic trademarks — a special beanie hat, square-rimmed glasses, a pair of sun glasses, etc. — there personalities were first known for the music, and not their eccentric looks. And these musicians didn’t consciously choose to be characterized by a certain look. They were too into their music to bother with thinking about trend-setting style. The only jazz musician who really did fuss about his looks was Miles Davis. Roy Hargrove is no Miles Davis yet.
Miles Davis VS. Roy Hargrove
The other thing is that Roy Hargrove is trying to play into his style, like the way he dresses and presents himself is a package with his kind of music. As if everyone who listens to him should be the kind of ‘cool cat’ that always loves to wear grey suits and black narrow ties and fedoras. Roy Hargrove is not only trying to brand himself and his music, he is trying to brand an entire genre of jazz. Just stop it Roy. Focus on the music and the rest will work itself out.
Well, ‘Earfood’ in its totality is a very listen-able album, and perhaps a cd I could give as a gift to a non-jazz listener. But I hope Roy Hargrove’s next album will rise up to the standards that both him and I have set.
Watch Roy Hargrove perform one of the songs from ‘Earfood’ below!
I twittered a couple weeks ago that I had a newfound obsession. And that obsession’s name is Esperanza Spalding. I’m not kidding. I’m obsessed. She is my most exciting musical find of the year.
Esperanza Spalding has come out with her second album in late 2008, self-titled Esperanza on Heads Up records (her first album was titled Junjo, released only in the US in 2006). This Berklee-educated, child musical prodigy, first came on my radar through her association with Emmy-nominated Christian Scott, my 2007 find-of-the-year. I didn’t actively get a chance to explore her sound until this year, but when the very first notes of this latest album touched my ears, I knew I was hooked.
Esperanza Spalding is like the Alicia Keys of the jazz world, but in saying that I might even be discrediting Esperanza a little. Her mixed heritage is extremely evident in her music. Each of her songs draw, in varying degrees, influence from Spanish-Salsa, Blues, Flamenco, R&B, Funk, Bossa Nova, Soul and Jazz. It makes for an intoxicating combination leaving you wanting a few more notes from the last song while simultaneously excited about what the next song will bring.
Esperanza plays double bass and sings lead vocals, which in my opinion is the perfect combination (there is nothing sexier than a hot girl playing funky bass-lines and singing sweet and tantalizing lyrics on top). She sings in interchangeably fluent English and Spanish, and shows the diversity of her bass skills from song to song. Cuerpo Y Alma (the Spanish version of Body and Soul) is Esperanza’s only real jazz standard in this album and is a fantastic entry-point for many mainstream jazz listeners. This and each successive song succinctly shows the breadth of her skills, from her silky vocals, to the mastery of the bass and scatting, to the ‘sounds simple’ but surprisingly complex syncopation.
In addition to Cuerpo Y Alma, I Adore You, Samba Empreludia and Ponta De Areia are all fantastic modern creations fully rooted in the Latin heritage. Anyone into Bossa Nova and interested in hearing the latest iterations of Latin Jazz must pay attention here. Because of these songs, I’ve fallen in love all over again with the magic that is Latin Jazz.
If That’s True, Mela, She Got To You and Love In Time, are delivered as fully-formed, hard-hitting contemporary jazz pieces; no doubt a product of her experiences at Berklee and touring with Joe Lovano. It is in these songs that you can take your time to explore Esperanza’s work on the bass. It is an immense pleasure to hear a maturing bassist, one that consciously considers the double bass as a leading instrument. I think as she continues to produce more songs, we’ll have a chance to hear the bass take more of center stage.
The songs on this album that most excite me are Precious, Fall In, Espera and I Know You Know. Maybe its because I grew up in a predominantly R&B, Funk and Soul environment, but these songs draw off-of and play derivative-to this realm of music. What Esperanza does in these songs I can only describe as exciting, mesmerizing and just cool. I’m a little afraid because if she pushes these types of songs too much, she’ll very quickly build a fan-base that only demands this kind of Nu-Jazz/Neo-Soul. She too easily can own this style of music. I say I’m afraid because I enjoy her other styles too much to see her pay less attention in developing her other styles. Songs like Precious and I Know You Know are so tantalizingly that I can see them entering the top mainstream R&B charts. There is no denying that the way she wraps up jazz in Blues chords and Soul phrasing gets under my skin.
I cannot even begin to comment about her voice. Love it. Love it. She’s already a star as a vocalist, but to be a master bassist as well puts her into the ranks of Brian McKnight, Chet Baker or Stevie Wonder, where you can’t decide whether you like their voice or their instrumental playing better.
Needless to say, I’m hooked. I’m not only a convert; I’m now and forevermore an evangelist for Esperanza Spalding. I wait anxiously for her next release, but until that time comes I’ll be playing Esperanza over and over and over…