Seventeen Things I Know About This Album
1. It was made by 26-year-old jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara. She was born in Japan and was a child prodigy who was only 17 when Herbie Hancock heard her play and invited her to play onstage with him that night. She’s also been mentored by Ahmad Jamal. She attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where she met her band (Tony Grey on bass, Martin Valihora on drums). Spiral is her third album.
2. A lot of jazz people hate her because she has been marketed as “the hot Japanese chick” and/or “the next big thing” and/or “the one who does trippy electronic stuff and then does introspective new-agey stuff so she can draw in both sides.” Jazzheads hate marketing like that, which is why jazzheads suck, and is also why jazz doesn’t sell any damn copies anymore.
3. A lot of non-jazzhead people love her because of those labels, which also sucks. Mostly, she is known for “Kung-Fu World Champion,” a funky tempo-changing piece off her last album, 2004’s Brain, which is almost impossibly fast in some spots and sounds more like Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” than anything Bill Evans ever squeezed out.
4. Spiral is a very good album, but it will not end up being known as her best. Twenty years from now, everyone will call it “the first of her great records,” but she will have moved on to creating something weirder and deeper and more revolutionary than these weird and deep but not very revolutionary songs.
5. The most revolutionary thing on this album is the 28-minute four-part suite called “Music for Three-Piece Orchestra.” It is pretty, it is ambitious, it sounds a lot like that classical/jazz/rock hybrid called Third Stream that people used to get all excited about before other people said it was pretentious and static. According to Hiromi’s liner notes, it details a musical and emotional journey inside oneself, and the ultimate emergence on the other side. This is helpful only to know why these four tracks comprise a suite, as the pieces don’t necessarily sound all that different from the other songs on the record, although I guess this suite is more “composed” than the rest of the album. While it is clear that Uehara is trying to find a way to turn the jazz trio into something more orchestral, the best parts here are when people rip up furious solos: Grey playing his bass like a guitar on “Déjà Vu”; Valihora ripping it up in the fourth piece, the furious “Edge”; and Uehara on piano and synthesizer everywhere else.
6. “Old Castle, by the river, in the middle of a forest” does not sound the way you think it will. I guess it does at first, with sound effects and meandering piano, but it soon changes into something different: a mix of 1970s smooth-groove with more florid romantic stylings. The piece keeps getting more and more intense, with Uehara cramming more notes into the space, and eventually modulates into a prog-rock theme (maybe more post-rock, I guess, but there’s also some Elton John heroics here) that escalates slowly until it feels like you’ve actually been somewhere.
7. She is wise to put the Pat Metheny-ish title track up front, because it’s the prettiest song here. (It sounds a bit too much like the cooler parts of Metheny’s The Way Up, but let’s not dwell on that.) But my favorite piece here is the soulful tricky stop-start “Love and Laughter,” which she dedicates to her mentor Ahmad Jamal; it perfectly captures that great man’s humor and musical intelligence, which is a beautiful thing. As well as being the only piece here rooted in blues, it sounds a hell of a lot like the theme from some old “Barney Miller” spinoff TV show. Top marks for that.
8. The DVD shows a live performance of “Kung-Fu World Champion,” performed just as perfectly as one might expect. (Maybe a little too perfectly, as it might open her up to jazzhead charges of being technically flawless but without swing or soul. It’s also extremely sexy, with Uehara’s blown-out hair and the O faces she makes when she’s burning out another impossible solo, which I guess the jazzheads don’t like either, but screw ‘em.) This is convenient, as the CD’s bonus track is called “Return of Kung-Fu World Champion,” and you can compare the two versions. The original kind of wins (at least my seven-year-old son thinks so), but the new one is pretty damned furioso as well, and probably more interesting in some ways.
9. This record will be on many people’s year-end lists, even if they are not jazz people. Dig it.