Music Review: Hiromi Uehara

Posted: December 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Hiromi Uehara

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.

Hiromi Uehara

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.

Hiromi Uehara

*Some of facts about Hiromi”s life were taken from her Wikipedia Page.


Music Review: Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

Posted: December 12th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

One of the wonderful new finds in so many months has been Brian Blade’s newest album, Season of Changes.  Admittedly this is the first of Brian’s albums that I’ve had a chance to get my hands on, but the music he and The Fellowship Band produce is exactly what I would expect from him: music that has a candidly contemporary tempo, delving into deep tonal moods and enriched by phrasing that characterizes the definition of today’s jazz.

Brian has been playing with all the major voices that have shaped the current movement in popular contemporary jazz.  I first noticed Brian Blade when he drummed for Joshua Redman in most of Joshua’s recordings, including the influential Momentum and Freedom in the Groove albums starting in the mid nineties.  I then listened intently as he worked with such rising stars as Kurt Rosenwinkel and jazz statesmen such as Kenny Garrett and Wayne Shorter.  It was almost expectant relief when I finally found an album with Brian’s own name on it. (Note: Brian Blade has 3 other previous albums, Brian Blade Fellowship <1998>, Perceptual <2000>, Friendly Travelers <2007>)

True to his heritage and experience, the music found in Season of Changes has a little bit of everyone he’s played with and admired.  The song Return of the Prodigal Son brings John Coltrane into the twenty-first century, whimsically playing with the fantasy of what John Coltrane would sound like if he had continued to live and perform into the present day.  Omni is another such songs that is set squarely from the Trane-era avant-garde/free jazz heritage, however I feel it pays much homage to Kenny Garrett’s work, another contemporary jazz giant.  Most Precious One (Prodigy), Season of Changes, Stoner Hill and Rubylou’s Lullaby stride straight into the best of the more progressive contemporary jazz coming out from today’s young pioneers.  You can hear Brian’s direction in these songs more clearly as he presents to the listener a clear, contemporary tempo and invites the rest of The Fellowship Band to join in the discussion.  It is in these songs that you hear remnants of Brad Mehldau from Jon Cowherd on piano, and where Kurt Rosenwinkel takes the lead on electric guitar, you get a very clear sense that they’ve gone through these motions before, and they know exactly where they want the sound to go.

Support-Instrument Band Leadership and “Foreground Ambient” Music

The one word that continually enters my mind as I listen to Brian Blade’s music is “Ambient”, but not the ambience we associate with ‘ambient jazz’ or ‘elevator music’.  I feel Brian’s music demands the ambience to take the foreground, requiring the listener to be submerged in the music, versus classic ambience that can be left in the background as an afterthought.  This music is made for sitting in your living room with a 5-speaker surround-sound stereo system and turning it up just a little too loud, so you can be enveloped in the layers of sound.

One reason why I believe Brian can make this type of music is because of the structure of The Fellowship Band.  Unlike other groups where the band leader is often the lead instrument, Brian Blade as the drummer leads from behind and sets a language that is then built upon layer-upon-layer by the other musicians. So when the direction shifts, you hear it as an under-swelling of change in the feel and phraseology of music.  This is in high contrast from lead-instrument-band-leader structures, where the shifts in musical direction are nakedly audible.  With Brian leading from behind and deep underneath, the movement of the music feels more subtle and in concert, hence my feeling of foreground-ambience.  Another analogy I have for the difference between lead-instrument and support-instrument leadership is much like front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive.  Front wheel drive has a faster response rate, acceleration rate and is more agile in its moves, but rear-wheel drive has a smoother acceleration and transition, making for a more pleasant ride.

This foreground-ambience I feel is inherent with many support-instrument band-leadership structures.  Brad Mehldau’s leadership on piano or Dave Holland’s leadership on bass are examples that come to mind.

Discussing music organizational structures just indulges the music & leadership junkies in me.  Regardless how you listen to it, Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band has got their equation down right, and will enthrall any jazz listener.  I for one look forward to Brian’s next album.