Hiromi Uehara plays things that no human should be able to play – and with her most sympathetic band yet.
For years now, Hiromi Uehara has been one of the hardest-working people in jazz music.
[Um, are you sure what she plays is jazz? It also skews toward dance music, pop, new age, and Third Stream/neo-classical/whatever too.]
She has released, with a couple three different bands, a succession of albums that showcase her incredible technical piano skill and, increasingly, her compositional ability.
[Wait, you're not even going to talk about her teenage years studying with Chick Corea? Or her time at Berklee?]
Lately, she's been conceiving each album as a conceptual suite – for example, 2010's Place to Be set each song in a different city around the world.
[But you know that her all-time best song is the techno-funk jam "Kung-Fu World Champion" from before she got all fancy and highfalutin, right?]
Now, she returns with Move, an album seemingly organized around a typical day. She does so with one of her best bands, a trio featuring the baritone guitar of Anthony Jackson and the rock stylings of Simon Phillips on drums. These two seasoned musicians know how to follow Hiromi's highly-complicated songs, and when to lay back and let her construct solos of high difficulty and real emotion.
[Don't you kind of miss her having a truly avant-garde foil like Dave Fiuzcynski wailing away on guitar on that one album, though?]
Things start pretty frenetically this time around, with the title track going through about 15 iterations in the course of nine minutes. The undercurrent is funky jazz, but we also go through periods of straight-up rockstuff (dig Phillips's drum fills in the middle) and sections of something that sounds more like Jethro Tull or Yes than anything else. And then, just when you have forgotten that there was a central theme, the band returns to it with a vengeance to wrap things up.
[You aren't going to mention the fact that you can't quite work out the time signature of this one, are you?]
Some writers take issue with Hiromi's supposed lack of emotional connection with the music, saying that she's merely a narrowly-talented automaton in love with how fast she can play. I couldn't disagree more; "Fantasy," the second part of the 20-minute triptych "Suite Escapism," is one of the most soulful jazz pieces in modern memory, infused with the lush romanticism of Ahmad Jamal (another of her teachers).
[Way to leave out the fact that "Suite Escapism" starts with "Reality," a wild high-speed chase that only occasionally touches on any kind of improvisation, and then returns to that mode in the final part, "In-Between." VERY tactful.]
Hiromi seems to trust Jackson and Phillips a lot more this time around, so there is a lot more groove here than one might expect. "Margarita!" fairly drips with good-timing abandon; Jackson even gets a rare chance to solo, showing that he has some very original ideas and maybe should be allowed to stretch out a bit more.
[Don't you mean that it shows a lack of generosity in her approach as a bandleader?]
Hiromi also busts out her trusty synths a lot more here. "Endeavor" re-introduces us to the clavinet boogie that she uses to balance her more classical pieces: down and dirty, in-the-pocket, and not afraid to sound occasionally beautiful.
[A lot more than what? Seems like the same ratio as all her other records.]
Everything comes together in the closer, "11:49 PM": romantic swoony passages, mysterious vamps, an extended showcase for Phillips on drums in the middle, and some seriously swinging solos to wrap things up. Yes, it's very difficult to pull this off, musically speaking; it's also deeply-felt and lovely.
[One could also argue that she's hit the wall here, and that no further real progress will be made with this band. But I won't.]