Pianist Mixes Rock, Blues and Classical Influences
Pianist Hiromi has blended rock, blues and classical influences into her music that people from all walks of life can appreciate.
“At a show, I’ll look out from the stage and see a woman with a pearl necklace next to a guy in a Grateful Dead T-shirt next to a young kid with his mom,” she says. “It’s fun to see them all together.”
They’re bonding over the rich and mercurial mix in her music. It’s marketed, correctly, as jazz. But key parts of the songs have the formal beauty of classical, the pitched attack of prog-rock or even the ease of pop-tinged blues.
If Hiromi’s music doesn’t have something for everyone, it has plenty for many. She’s skilled enough at her craft to join the relatively rare rank of top female jazz stars known exclusively for their playing. They range from drummer Viola Smith in the 1940s to pianists Alice Coltrane and Carla Bley in the ’60s and ’70s to drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in the ’80s and ’90s to bassist Esperanza Spalding today.
By contrast, the most famous women in jazz tend to be singers. “I’m asked so many times why I think there aren’t more female instrumentalists in jazz,” Hiromi says. “But I never think about it. And I don’t think it’s been any harder for me to be taken seriously. The music speaks for itself.”
It does so with special animation on her latest disc, “Alive.” The sound centres on the muscular dynamics among the pianists’ core trio, rounded out by drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Anthony Jackson.
The trio represents only one of Hiromi’s guises. In her 35 years, she has played with top jazz stars, like Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Chick Corea, and also led the band Sonicbloom.
Born Hiromi Uehara, she began playing piano at age 6 in her birthplace of Hamamatsu, Japan. Early on, she was exposed to the piano work of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, who became her est influences. By 14, she appeared with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and, at 17, met Corea in Tokyo. He invited her to play with him at a concert the next day.
Hiromi moved to the U.S. to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the same school that nurtured Spalding. A professor of hers took a demo tape she had recorded to legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. He helped her get a recording contract before she even graduated. Hiromi’s debut album, 2003’s “Another Mind,” appeared during her senior year.
In the years since, Hiromi has defied jazz’s love of covers, preferring to write nearly all the material she performs herself. “I always have a will to write,” she says. “It’s organic to me.”
She seldom works with singers. Even her album titled “Voice” featured no human ones. “When there are no lyrics, people can picture what they want,” Hiromi says. “It’s a reflection of where they are in their lives. Music becomes a mirror.”
The instrumentals she creates can be contemplative, but more often they’re brisk and loud. Segments of the title track on “Alive” approach the speed of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” “The energy is just there in me,” she says.
The force of the sound helps emphasize the rock angle in Hiromi’s music. It’s particularly pronounced in the three albums she has cut with her current trio. The latest one darts, with a manic flair, between time-signatures and genres.
The harder qualities in the music play to the strengths of drummer Phillips, who’s overwhelmingly known for his work with rock bands, like The Who, Jeff Beck and Judas Priest.
Yet Hiromi says she wanted to work with Phillips because “he can play many styles. All the members of the band hate being in the safe zone. We want to push ourselves to find new landscapes. Music shouldn’t stay in one place. It should take you on a ride.”