May 23, 2012

Hiromi: The Trio Project – a review


Jazz piano trios are one of the most fun groups to play in, because all three instruments (piano, bass, drums) do their own thing and the ranges of the instruments do not overlap. There is therefore no clashing of chords with other instruments (eg. acoustic guitars) or prima donna solo lines by treble instruments (ie. electric guitar) that interfere with the pianist. As such, the pianist is almost always the leader of the trio, free to improvise whatever they want.

Despite being only three in number, the instruments are so complementary and self-sufficient that sometimes, adding just one more instrument would be one too many.

I heard of Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara back in 2007 when a friend of mine lent me her album Another Mind, and I was blown away by her complex, virtuosic and stylistic playing. Her jazz would somehow turn into progressive rock, at times she was bluesy, and at other times, literally “piano-shredding” as some guitarists would say. Take, for example, her rendition of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.

See what I mean? And I thought the original Gershwin piano composition was tough, this is insane! I really wonder how her mind functions…

Hiromi: The Trio Project
22 May 2012
Esplanade Concert Hall

Anyway, when M asked me if I wanted to watch Hiromi with him, I jumped at the chance to, excited at the thought of watching her live. She would be playing with Anthony Jackson on the bass and Steve Smith on the drums, both well-known in the jazz scene. After all, I always wondered how she could play so many notes/lines at the same time. Most music on CDs can be added layer by layer and undergo much editing, is her playing for real?

M had gotten us some really good seats in Circle 1, high enough to see the trio nicely without being too high. The trio walked onto the stage with much cheering and clapping, and Hiromi was every bit as spunky as I imagined her to be, with her hair cut short into a bob, somewhat spiky. She was dressed in a black sleeveless cotton dress with tights and strappy heels.

Comfortably settled behind their instruments, they opened the set with two tracks from the latest album Voice, called Desire, and Delusion. Within the opening bars the trio had flaunted their prowess, gelling together so happily and well. Both songs were percussive and “fusion” in nature, with passages allowing each musician to show off their pyrotechnics of virtuosity. Resting on top of the grand piano was a smaller digital keyboard, those that allowed for sounds to be manipulated and switched into funky, groovy timbres. Switching effortlessly from right-hand on the grand piano and left-hand on the keyboard to vice versa, at time pushing the other buttons to change the timbre, and then sometimes both hands hammering on the grand piano, I wondered if she had some five other invisible hands hidden under her dress helping her! As she played, she was practically dancing, swinging her legs, tapping her feet, and at times also doing what guitarists call “head-banging”. ‘She’d play with her hands AND both feet if it were possible’, whispered M, and I could not have agreed more.

After the first two numbers, she took the microphone, stepped away from the piano, and began to talk a little. In that instant she underwent a total transformation, smiling chirpily and speaking like a typical kawaii (cutesy) Japanese schoolgirl. ‘Thank you, everyone, thanks! I’ve missed Singapore so much, and I’m so glad to be back here!’ she said with a heavy Japanese accent, to more cheers and applause from the audience. One couldn’t help but fall in love with her bubbly personality. And then it was back to the piano, with yet another song from Voice, called Now or Never. This song opened with much more groovy notes from her synthesizer, and once again she was switching from small keyboard to piano. More fusion music followed, displays of virtuosity where her left hand played a syncopated rhythm and her right hand danced across the piano, as if playing nonsense but with every note falling into its perfect place. Pounding away with her muscular arms, she even used her fist at times. The organisers should really have put up a sign saying Please do not try this at home!

Jackson and Smith left the stage, and Hiromi took centre stage. This was Hiromi at one of her more personal, intimate moments, caressing the piano with a bluesy number. The two then crept back on stage, as Hiromi began with what was possibly the most daring, yet beautiful piece of the evening. As she started playing the opening chords of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, her years of classical training showed the perfect balance of melody and harmony…and…wait a minute.. Where did all those jazz chords come from?! The audacity of it all! The classical piece was transformed into the sweetest blues nocturne, flowing from her fingertips and joined by a soft bass and shuffling drums.

The concert came to a close when she picked up the pace and ended with a long, impressive drums solo by Smith. Naturally, the trio received standing ovations from all around, taking two curtain calls and appearing once more to play an encore. Such artistry, I think even Beethoven would have been impressed!

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