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