The Puissant Pianist
The insert photo recalls the sort of image used selling Midori, young Japanese lady fetchingly got up and looking enraptured. This seems like a joke when the CD starts playing. The name that comes to mind is tsunami, or some other earthquake and volcano jargon term. Quite simply, I’ve heard no more powerful jazz pianist than Hiromi Uehara. Current competition includes the Russian Simon Nabatov (the Slavonic Jaki Byard) as well as Brad Mehldau (I’ve not heard of Bobby Enriquez in some time, but her fingers punch as hard as his fists and elbows).
As in Enriquez’ case, the virtuosity is at times delivered with nearly violent drive and swing, a huge relief after a succession of listening experiences in which these qualities were missing. This is not smooth jazz (from which may the gods preserve us!), though it doesn’t lack finish. The material might also be of this 23-year-old Japanese’s composing, I recognise no titles other than “XYZ”, and the storming exercise in intensity-building which bears that name isn’t its Earl Hines namesake. It ought to carry a warning, this big bang and cyclone beginning to a debut CD.
The programme is for the most part contemporary in focus, the trio augmented on the second and third tracks, the near 12 minutes of “Double Personality” with Jim Odgren on a not objectionably trendily funky alto, and Dave Fiuczynski’s guitar yowling as if he wanted to demonstrate what sissies these stock rock musicians are. When everybody else drops out on this variously paced tour de force, the pianist has moments of Prokofiev and Lenny Tristano (briefly visiting a Baptist church) and demonstrations of an ability to play with immense subtlety, quietly. Her statement in the flier that she doesn’t know what her music could be called mentions classical and rock and jazz, but since the ham in that sandwich is an offspring of jazz, and European concert music is among of jazz’s grandparents and cousins, I’d suppose she’s referring to an excessively narrowed conception of the music—a longtime phenomenon created by publicists on behalf of this and that succession of new things, pandering to the narrow minds of successive younger generations until the whole business became attenuated.
Suffice it to say that Hiromi doesn’t have a narrow mind, and that if she (as per the flier’s heading) “Takes jazz to a new place”, it’s really only a place new to far too many. After the funky saxophone quartet on “Summer Rain”, the following “Joy” is fairly conservative stuff hardly remote from what, say, John Hicks might play, a comparison which has to recognise what a great player Hicks is.
“010101 (binary system)” utilises an electronic spinet or something of the sort, alternating between its keyboard and the piano heard elsewhere. I’ve no doubt she could have produced something equally effective on merely piano, but perhaps there’s some kind of appeal being made to rock fans (instead of the 1940s composition “From Dixieland to Bebop” this might be “From Disco to Music and Back—and Forth”, at least according to the more conservative listener). “Truth and Lies” is more on the lines of “Joy” and “Dancando no Paraiso” thrills especially where Hiromi’s signally accomplished potent left hand deepens the overall timbre of a performance which moves in and out of Hispanic and gospel cum Horace Silver Quintet modes. In most of the nine performances, there is at least one tempo change and back, the average length being somewhere around seven minutes. She is not short on variety within a consistent unity of style.
The title track “Another Mind” opens like the crack of doom with a powerful left-hand figure and filigree right hand. Interplay with bass or drums or both emphasises the orchestral feel, and sometimes she plays like a band, sometimes even a contrapuntalist/one-woman duettist with one hand playing off against the other, and with startling entries. At times, there’s also close combination with Dave Di Censo’s (it would have to be!) powerhouse drumming. Quite where Anthony Jackson guests on bass I cannot say, he is listed along with her usual bassist Mitch Cohn, but the textures are too complex to work out in the absence—Telarc please note—of full details I hope the issued CD prints. Jackson is credited with saying he’s played with some of the best and that Hiromi at 23 years hardly falls short of them. Not quite on the strength of this CD, but I’d not rule out the suggestion that his assertion’s merely premature. (It’s also presumably misstated here, where his words as printed are “I’ve worked with quite a few of . . . the greatest players that I’ve ever worked with”, but I can understand excitement over Hiromi’s music generating that sort of muddle).
It’s annoying that the final track’s described as “bonus”—how does one not qualify for it? I very much want it, but dislike its being entitled “The Tom and Jerry Show”. Really, musicians ought to lose the adolescent snob superstition Jaki Byard never suffered from, that somehow elements of style current circa 1930 demand patronising or jokiness. This ill-titled wholly piano solo closer is in three sections, fast, slow, fast, and opens with a kind of ragtime into stomping gospel style Mary Lou Williams (ask Dave Douglas) presumably picked up in her native Pittsburg and featured now and then throughout a lengthy and various playing career. Nobody else did quite that sort of thing, or modulated into a style modern in the 1980s, and went into New York stride mode in racing to a two-handed closer. Fie on sham sophistication, and more power to a most accomplished young virtuoso innocent of it in her playing—and liable to improve on currently being a justified focus of dread and horror among ambitious would-be competitors. Wow! Phew!