Critics and listeners alike have to guard against mistaking the artist for the art, but that’s not a problem when it comes to the Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, who’s generally known by her first name alone.
On record—and especially Alive, the latest release from her Hiromi: The Trio Project—she’s voluble and volatile, linking a prodigious technique to an apparently limitless supply of energy. At times she comes across as a kind of 21st-century Art Tatum, spinning out long, rippling lines with the nonchalance of an acrobat—although, unlike the original jazz-piano prodigy, she writes almost all of her own material.
In conversation, however, it’s another story. Reached at her home in Tokyo, Hiromi is reticent to the point of opacity, giving one-word answers to some questions and deflecting most of my speculations about her music’s deeper meaning. It’s not a language issue: the pianist is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, spends a good chunk of her time in New York City, and speaks more than competent English. It could be shyness, but Hiromi’s conversational caution goes beyond any stereotypical notions of Japanese reserve. Perhaps she’s just one of those people who prefer to let the music speak for itself.
The one time she opens up is when it comes to discussing the two Trio Project musicians who join her on Alive, and who’ll reprise their lively sonic conversation at an upcoming TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival concert. In drummer Simon Phillips and electric bassist Anthony Jackson, she’s found an ideal rhythm section. Phillips is splashy and effusive, creating a kind of electrical field around Jackson’s rock-solid bass pulse; in turn, the latter displays a knack for counterpoint that would dazzle Johann Sebastian Bach. As a trio, the three appear to share one mind—and according to Hiromi their rapport is only getting stronger.
“Well, you know, the more shows you play together, the more the connection gets better,” she explains. “We really understand each other much more. On Voice, my first album with this trio, it was like I wrote songs and then I thought of who would be the perfect musicians to play those songs. So it was kind of like the songs gathered the band. But now playing in this band inspires me, so that really makes me write songs. Now it’s like the band is having me write more songs. You know what I mean?”
She’s talking about synergy, something this trio has in quantity. The group has come together so effectively, she adds, that it’s hard to single out any one member’s contributions—and one certainly shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing Jackson as the calm centre of an otherwise exuberant operation.
“If you come to see us live, it’s not really like that,” she says, with perhaps the faintest suggestion of a chuckle. “It’s like the three of us are really fighting to get to places we haven’t been before. It’s not calm. I mean, it’s hard work!”
Nonetheless, Hiromi and her accomplices make music that’s easy to like—and that would make an encouraging introduction to jazz for those new to the genre.
Hiromi: The Trio Project plays a TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival concert at the Vogue Theatre next Saturday (June 21).