The Kaleidoscopic Colors of Hiromi’s Pianism

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Hiromi’s diverse discography includes collaborations with pianist Chick Corea and harpist Edmar Castaneda.

(Photo: Makoto Hirose)

“Kaleidoscope,” the opening track on Hiromi Uehara’s new solo album, Spectrum, features the dazzling displays of pianism that have become her trademark: cascading waves of right-hand notes; countervailing left-hand runs that pull, like rip currents, against the sonic flow; melodic figures that appear, disappear and reappear in mutated form amid the roiling sea of sound. The spectacle astounds.

But beyond the spectacle—and beneath the keyboard—lies the source of a telling twist: the piano’s sostenuto pedal. An oft-ignored appendage that sustains selected tones, the pedal, under Hiromi’s foot, transforms the most unassuming phrases in “Kaleidoscope” into pulsating facsimiles of digital delay. The strategy—and it is decidedly that—is both aesthetically striking and designed to heighten the piano’s appeal to 21st-century ears.

“I love the instrument and I want people to know its potential,” she said.

Few pianists exploit the potential of their instruments with the range of skill and emotion that Hiromi has at her disposal. Even at her most effulgent, she is the most intimate of pianists—an effortlessly charismatic communicator who, through her music, evangelizes for the instrument. And, in making that case, few documents testify more powerfully than Spectrum (Telarc).

Recorded in February 2018 when she was 39 years old, the new nine-track collection is the second in a series of solo albums she’s set to release marking 10-year increments in her life. At 29, she recorded Place To Be (Telarc), her first solo album. She plans to record the third album in the solo series when she is 49.

That Hiromi observes these milestones with solo albums is no coincidence. While her involvement with other formats is no less formidable—her duo and trio work in particular have electrified audiences—solo performance, by her own account, holds both a fascination for her intellect and a mirror to her musical soul.

“The more I play solo, the more challenging it gets,” she said. “It’s like a never-ending adventure for me. I just want to be alone with the piano, looking at myself as a pianist.”

The solo work has won the admiration of impresarios like George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. “When she’s playing solo, nothing gets in her way,” said Wein, who has since 2006 booked her at the festival five times, in both solo and trio formats, and, along with fellow pianists Jacky Terrasson and the late Cedar Walton, in a series of solo “summit” concerts in 2011. “Playing solo, you get the most out of Hiromi.”

The summit concerts were scheduled at a time when Hiromi was emerging as a notable solo voice. Place To Be, a two-disc set released in 2009, had been garnering raves for the scope and execution of its offerings, from the relentlessly lyrical title track (a duo version of which had appeared in 2008 on a Concord release with Chick Corea, Duet: Chick & Hiromi) to the three-part “Viva! Vegas” (a mini-suite that is, well, kaleidoscopic in its evocation of Sin City).

Despite the praise, the success of Place To Be was by no means preordained. Hiromi’s five previous albums, all combo works, had not necessarily prepared her for the solo effort. “There was a lot of work with other people, and she wasn’t completely exposed,” said Michael Bishop, who has produced or engineered nearly all of her albums for the past decade through his Five/Four Productions. “She was more apprehensive about how a solo piano recording was going to be accepted in the world.”

The recording session, in fact, took some time to find its footing. “For me as the engineer,” Bishop said, “it seemed like the project overall was more work because it wasn’t her familiar element.” But, he said, things began to fall into place during an evening session when, as the night grew late and the studio lights were dimmed, she dug into the title tune. “She created such an incredible moment.”

Recalling the moment, Hiromi grew animated as she discussed how, when the atmosphere in the studio changed, so too did her relationship to her instrument: “It made me feel more focused. It made me feel as though it’s me and the piano. I could really feel every sound of the piano, the overtones, all these [sonic] details.”

A decade later, that feeling returned with added potency at the recording session for Spectrum. “There was a lot more confidence,” Bishop recalled. “It was just off and running. It didn’t ramp up like Place To Be did. She just ripped right into it. Within 10 minutes of doing our sound check, she was doing the first takes of ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’ We were recording ‘keeper’ takes within the first half hour.”

The intention on the first day was simply to run a sound check. But the plush surroundings in Skywalker Sound, the studio at filmmaker George Lucas’ Marin County ranch, induced in Hiromi a kind of adrenaline rush and, in two extended takes, she produced the material that became “Rhapsody In Various Shades Of Blue.”

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