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New releases are usually a bit thin on the ground in January and this has proved true again in 2020, the respite providing the perfect chance to revisit the best albums of the last year.
2019 was a solid year for new jazz piano releases, many of which I have enjoyed repeatedly. Highlights have included Keith Jarrett’s superb Munich 2016 recording, Ahmad Jamal’s gorgeous Ballades, Abdullah Ibrahim’s Dream Time and Chick Corea’s double live trio CD Trilogy 2.
My personal favourite of the many good recent jazz albums has to be Hiromi Uehara’s Spectrum, however. Following a succession of brilliant trio, ensemble and collaboration albums, Spectrum is Hiromi’s first solo piano studio album for a decade, and is a remarkable musical tour de force.
Speaking to The Japan Times, Hiromi said of the recording,
“As a pianist, making a solo album is really like, kind of being naked. There is nowhere to hide. There is no other instrument to play with in order to cover the sound. It’s really challenging, but at the same time, it’s the best way to fully enjoy this instrument…
It’s like having a conversation with myself. I can be really free, if there is nobody there to restrain me. I can go anywhere that I want in improvisation.”
Let’s find out where Hiromi’s playing led her …
40-year-old Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara has enjoyed a global career that can certainly be described as colourful. Though generally described as a “jazz” pianist, her music is multi-faceted, drawing on her classical training, ragtime and stride, fusion and prog rock.
In the recording studio, Hiromi’s eclectic discography includes records with her regular trio, her ensemble Sonicbloom, and collaborations with Chick Corea, The Stanley Clarke Trio, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, popular Japanese singer Akiko Yano, and Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda.
In addition to her piano playing, she frequently enjoys turns on the Clavia Nord Lead and Electro synthesisers, electronic elements regularly appearing in her work (but not on Spectrum).
On stage, Hiromi’s electrifying presence has dazzled audiences around the world. Readers may have seen this phenomenal performance of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm from the BBC Proms 2017 at London’s Royal Albert Hall (don’t be fooled by the well-behaved opening!) :
With Spectrum, Hiromi turns colours into the concept for an album that seems to both summarise her astonishing journey thus far, while also opening up new avenues of her musical imagination.
The link between colour and piano playing is, for Hiromi, a longstanding one dating to her early music education at the Yamaha Music Foundation in Tokyo, Japan. Back in 2007 she talked about her first teacher there in an interview with The Japan Times,
“She was a very unique teacher. She always colored my whole score with pencils. Instead of using musical jargon such as fortepiano, crescendo, decrescendo, she would just color the score — so that when I saw red, it made me feel like I needed to play with passion. And she wrote some word like ‘melancholic’ and painted it blue and I had to play it blue. And that was really good for, I think, kids, because your brain cannot really process what “forte” is when you are like 6 or 7, but you can see — you can understand the color, you can see visuals more than trying to understand something by brain. So, I could really feel the music with my emotions.”
How fascinating that, these many years later, Hiromi continues to use colour as a reference point in her playing…
Entering the Kaleidoscope
Recorded and mixed by Michael Bishop at the Skywalker Sound studio in California in February 2019, Spectrum features Hiromi performing on a Yamaha CFX Concert Grand Piano. Released by Telarc, Hiromi’s regular long-term label, the album contains nine tracks of varying length.
Alongside each title below, Hiromi offers some insight into its meaning shown here in italics. And for each track, a few comments of my own…
Things change when you look at them from a different angle; they are constantly changing and never the same.
The album opens with a dazzling toccata in which cascades of notes build to an initial climax before giving way to a more chordal motif, in turn leading to a stunning central improvisatory section. There’s a boisterous energy to this music which could surely only herald a Hiromi album!
The world becomes one colour in one momnent.
The raucous pace of Kaleidoscope finds its balance in this gorgeous ballad portraying gently falling snowflakes. Never moribund, however; the lyricism is interspersed with flurries that take fanciful flight before leading to a deliciously playful middle section, finally reaching an ecstatic reiteration of Hiromi’s central melodic idea.
Yellow Wurlitzer Blues
When the yellow Wurlitzer starts playing, everyone starts singing.
It’s no surprise that the third track provides another change of pace, Hiromi literally hitting her ‘stride’, with a series of boogie-woogie licks that Jerry Lee Lewis would have been proud of, but which retains Hiromi’s signature quirkiness, vibrancy and good humour.
Various colours connect and expand, just like musical notes.
For the title track, extraordinary and vivacious brilliance again takes centre stage, Hiromi delivering perhaps the most serious moment of the set. You can listen for yourself in this promo video:
Even on dark nights, without any wings, the blackbird keeps flying.
Lennon and McCartney’s classic song is a brilliant, if risky choice for the jazz songbook. Hiromi lends the song an insouciant beauty, though some may feel that the twittering filigree somewhat obscures the essence of simplicity that makes this such a stunning song.
Dedicated to the King of Comedy.
For me, perhaps the highlight of the whole set, this jaunty vaudeville soundtrack to an imaginary Charlie Chaplin movie is a sheer delight. Hiromi confided once again in The Japan Times:
“When I was at the Berklee College of Music (in Boston), I improvised over one of Charlie Chaplin’s films. His action and motions and facial expressions … it fits my improvisation. I felt something in common. At the same time, he’s always in black and white films, but he creates so much color through his performances.”
Once in a Blue Moon
Maracles can happen when you wish and fight for them.
Perhaps the most difficult piece to categorise, Once in a Blue Moon manages to combine an upper-mid-tempo positivity with a reflective vibe, centred on a melody which recalls (without directly quoting) My Favourite Things, before venturing into some of the most discursive and at times aggressive improvisation on the recording.
Rhapsody in Various Shades of Blue
A single colour is made up of many layers of colour.
An epic climax to the album, this 22-minute track centres on the much-loved solo piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, even from the outset venturing beyond the score into embellishment and improvisatory detours. Along the way, Hiromi diverts into discursive covers of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and, stranger yet, The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes”.
At first, I must confess I thought that the novelty of the track would soon wear thin, but with repeated listens Hiromi’s odyssey here has only grown to impress me more.
Sometimes, memories look more beautiful than the truth.
There’s a wistful warmth to Sepia Effect that can only be described as valedictory. Building on an apparently simple melody, Hiromi weaves an immersive web that leaves the listener entranced at the close of what has been an astonishing set.
At the age of 40, Hiromi surely has nothing left to prove, having conquered with a succession of stunning albums and jaw-dropping performances around the globe.
And yet… Spectrum is something else again, a genuine jazz classic of and for the 21st century. Seriously … don’t miss it!
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