Hiromi Bends a Piano to Her Will

United StatesUnited States Hiromi, The Trio Project: Hiromi Uehara (piano), Anthony Jackson (contrabass guitar), Simon Phillips (drums), SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco. 4.4.2013 (HS)

(All music by Hiromi)

Brand New Day
Place to Be (piano solo)
Suite Escapism:
“In Between”

Hiromi at the piano (Photo: Jay Blakesburg)
Hiromi at the piano (Photo: Jay Blakesburg)


No other jazz pianist quite sounds like Hiromi, not before and not today. And it’s not just because she mostly performs her own utterly unclassifiable compositions. Diminutive, almost pixie-like, the 34-year-old Japanese-born musician urges a piano to perform like something that can undulate sinuously. Through a combination of fine dynamic control, pace, tempo and flabbergasting technique, she makes the instrument sing as few pianists can in any genre, including the giants of classical music.

On the opener of a four-night stop at the new SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco with her current powerhouse group, The Trio Project, she broke in the center’s new Yamaha CFX concert grand piano in style. Midway through the first half, in her one solo piece, “Place to Be,” she created swirls of quiet notes in the right hand, a sort of pianistic blur remindful of Debussy, every note speaking clearly and warmly as she formed a cloud of sound for a quiet tune to emerge in the left hand. Later, as the piece built to a climax, expansive chords seemed to morph seamlessly into the next one.

Hiromi’s music is firmly rooted in familiar jazz genres. Transcribed onto a page, some of it might look like harmonically adventurous Art Tatum, with chords evoking George Shearing channeling Ravel. At other times it can resemble the intensity of McCoy Tyner or the lyrical virtuosity of Chick Corea. In a flash she can shift from funky electronic rhythms to complex bebop elaborations, detouring briefly to a straight-faced shuffle, only to build to an inexorable climax of expressive chords. Although we can sense the antecedents she never actually copies exactly like any of these musicians. She absolutely sounds like herself.

She can shift easily into unexpected time signatures. A theme might state itself in 4/4, only to turn to 7/4 during the bass solo. Another 4/4 rhythm morphs into 5/4 for the drum solo. Tatum never did that.

For The Trio Project she seems intent on pushing the envelope into even harder-edged sounds than we might have heard from her before. Volume can get quite loud. On this program, the only time the piano was not amplified was for her solo piece. For the others, it needed extra decibels to compete with drummer Simon Phillips and the (amplified) contrabass guitar of Anthony Jackson.

Most of the music in this opening-night concert came from the recording “Move,” released in March, beginning with the title tune and “Endeavor,” both hard-driving rhythmic tours de force. Next came one the highlights, the relatively easygoing “Brand New Day,” a fleet jazz waltz. Of course, for Hiromi, easygoing does not rule out a solo composed of flurries of notes; they just seem to flit inevitably to a satisfying finish. After the graceful solo work (from a 2009 album), came the fast-moving “Desire” from Voice (2011), the first Trio Project CD.

“Delusion,” also from that first CD, and “Margarita” from the new one, opened the second set with more in this hard-driving style. In her improvisations in these, the musical textures ranged from crystalline clarity to masses of chords that somehow manage to carry a swinging tune, almost like a big band. As intense as it got, there was always a sense of elegance to the swagger.

Her partners in the trio contributed virtuosic playing of their own. Surrounded by a forest of cymbals and enough drums to equip an entire marching band, Phillips went far beyond the traditional jazz role of providing tasty seasoning for the rhythm until it was his turn for a solo. Although I found his playing sometimes intrusive, he took jaw-dropping advantage of the timbre and pitch of these instruments to double a piano phrase or provide counterpoint to Hiromi’s melodies. To his credit, he also dialed it back to underline gently in quieter moments.

Phillips—whose résumé includes stints with The Who, Brian Eno and Jeff Beck—is so active that sometimes it’s difficult to tell when he’s actually moved into a solo, especially since Hiromi often accompanies drum or bass solos with recurring riffs. Musically, this practice embeds these solos more seamlessly. For a drummer, it keeps the improvisations tied to a foundation.

Jackson, who invented the six-string electric bass he calls a contrabass guitar, has played with a long list of jazz artists and has been featured with Paul Simon. Although he cites the French composer Olivier Messiaen as one of his main influences, his role in this trio mostly carried the rhythmic pulse. He did so engagingly.

On pieces such as the slow, dreamy “Fantasy” movement of Hiromi’s Suite Escapism, he coaxed a flute-like sound in the first statement of the main theme. The subtle interplay of his bass with piano in the slow, chorale-like but insinuatingly rhythmic introduction to “11:49PM” (played as an encore), was especially arresting. Phillips also did his best work here, weaving into the ensemble without overpowering it and creating a solo of beautifully shifting colors and textures.

Harvey Steiman