Pianist Hiromi Uehara is redefining the possibilities for combining classical music and jazz

United StatesUnited States Hiromi Solo: Hiromi Uehara (piano). SFJAZZ, Miner Auditorium, San Francisco, 9/9/2022. (HS)

Hiromi Uehara (screenshot)

Uehara – ‘Kaleidoscope’, ‘Yellow Wurlitzer Blues’, ‘Whiteout’, ‘Once in a Blue Moon’, ‘Place to Be’
McCartney – ‘Blackbird’
Gershwin/UeharaRhapsody in Various Shades of Blue

Hiromi, The Piano Quintet: Hiromi Uehara, PUBLIQuartet [Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth (violins), Nick Revel (viola), Hamilton Berry (cello)]. SFJAZZ, Miner Auditorium, San Francisco, 11/9/2022. (HS)

UeharaSilver Lining Suite, ‘Uncertainty’, ‘Someday’, ‘Jumpstart’, ‘Ribera Del Duero’
Arlen – ‘Over the Rainbow’
Dvořák/PUBLIQuartet – ‘American’ String Quartet (first movement, jazz arrangement)

Jazz performers with classical music backgrounds are not rare, especially among pianists. Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Phineas Newborn come to mind. Hiromi Uehara is unusual because her music combines the impeccable facility and clarity of a classical virtuoso with her own roots in jazz.

Wynton Marsalis, for one, played brilliant classical and jazz trumpet, but seldom crossed over as a performer (although he composed a jazz-infused concerto for the classical violinist Nicola Benedetti). Hiromi (she goes by the single name as a performer) has upped the ante for jazz-classical crossovers, and just how much was on display this past weekend to open the 2022-23 season at SFJAZZ.

In separate, sold-out concerts she played music from her two most recent albums. Spectrum, a solo tour-de-force, was issued in 2019, just before COVID shut down live in-person performances. Silver Lining Suite, written for piano and string quartet, came out this year.

Starting a five-city tour on the Miner Auditorium stage at SFJAZZ has special meaning for Hiromi. She was about to introduce San Francisco to her new solo music when the emergency order shut down the city in March 2020. She made a point to tell the audience on hand and listening in on Friday’s livestream how much it meant to begin her first U.S. tour since then on the same stage.

Hiromi and PUBLICQuartet © Ronald Davis

The solo program – which I watched from home on SFJAZZ’s excellently produced livestream – was a feast of delicious music-making, opening with ‘Kaleidoscope’, a dazzling high-speed romp through a sort of history of jazz piano, and concluding with her version of Gershwin’s own jazz-classical crossover, which she titled Rhapsody in Various Shades of Blue. An example of her musical innovation: her beginning of the Gershwin transmuted the iconic clarinet solo into a full-scale, fully harmonized, pianistic explosion to announce what was to come.

Over the course of its 25 minutes, she interpolated snippets of jazz classics, including John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’ and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Blue Monk’. That’s not unusual; Matthew Whittaker, among others, has expanded the piano part of Gershwin’s piece with improvisations, backed by full orchestra. Hiromi made the transitions so smooth one could swear Gershwin had written them, and yet they fit her style seamlessly.

That style ranges from delicate playing to thundering passages worthy of any concert hall. She can settle into a rhythm on a single note or a trill, and unleash flurries of fioritura worthy of Chopin. She builds polyrhythms into complex edifices. And it all swings. In ‘Yellow Wurlitzer Blues’, she leaned over the piano to dampen a bass line with her right hand, creating a virtual walking bass to set the mood for a puckish series of variations on an original tune reminiscent of ‘Lulu’s Back in Town’ (a favorite of jazz pianists since Art Tatum).

Perhaps most appealing on the solo program was a heartfelt arrangement of Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ that began with quiet open fifths in the left hand and a mere suggestion of the well-known melody in the right. It developed into a sort of nocturne. Chopin might have approved.

Silver Lining, a four-movement work for the instrumentation of chamber music’s piano quintet, was written as a response to isolation during the pandemic. It was recorded with a quartet of Japanese string players, along with several other pieces she composed for the same instrumentation. The recording is fine, but these performances, with the New York-based PUBLIQuartet, rose to a whole new level.

Hamilton Berry made his cello stand in admirably for a jazz bass line and, when called for, made a countermelody sail smoothly. Violist Nick Revel showed an aptitude for jazz licks, and violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth led the music’s eloquent interjections to Hiromi’s extended improvisations with taste.

The suite’s structure follows a classical form, the melodic and harmonic elements within an accessible jazz idiom. A first movement, ‘Isolation’, vibrated with nervous energy and grabbed the audience’s lapels with the opening notes. The piano took the lead here, first in apposition to the quartet, then off onto improvisations that always led back smoothly to the ensemble. A second movement, ‘The Unknown’, acted as a sort of Shostakovich-scary scherzo, and a slow movement, ‘Drifters’, settled into a soft meditation that passed around the melodies. The finale, ‘Fortitude’, brought things to a rousing climax.

This expertly wrought music reveals extra depths when compared with the composer’s earlier efforts. It does, however, require an improvisor who can execute as fearlessly as Hiromi. The companion pieces to Silver Lining had much the same feel, though each had its own personality. The concert finished with the rollicking ‘Ribera del Duero’: despite its Spanish title and an improvised piano introduction that felt like a rapid rhumba, its juicy liveliness owes much to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.

The string players not only executed the Romany-esque music but had the jazz sense that kept up with Hiromi. It’s no surprise that they added their own flair to all elements of the collaboration. They have been layering their own jazz tropes with music from Debussy to medieval composers since their founding in 2010. Their recent album, What Is American?, includes a freewheeling improvisatory response to themes and musical gestures from the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘American’ String Quartet.

They got a moment alone in the spotlight to play that one, and it won over the audience, which hummed along with the Negro spiritual quoted as the quartet filled in their elaborations.

Even better, though, was Hiromi’s solo turn, her own tender, affecting arrangement of ‘Over the Rainbow’. Her controlled pianism, gentle touch, harmonic invention and sublimely refined adjustments to Harold Arlen’s tune reminded me of Bill Evans’s solo piano work from the 1960s and 1970s. That’s as high praise as I can offer.

Hiromi’s tour with the PUBLIQuartet continues on 17 September in Santa Monica; 20 September in Portland; 22 September in Seattle; and 29 November in New York.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment