Hiromi's modern fusion

Hiromi will perform at Club Helsinki on Saturday

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 13, 2003) – It’s a long way from writing commercial jingles for Nissan to writing and playing the funky, energetic, 21st-century jazz fusion that Hiromi Uehara makes with her trio, which comes to Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Saturday at 9.

The Berklee College graduate, who last performed in the region when she warmed up the crowd for Wynton Marsalis and Natalie Cole at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, says she was equally influenced by rock, jazz, and classical music, which she grew up studying.

“I love energy so much,” said Hiromi, who uses just her first name as a stage name, in a phone interview. “My music has really strong energy, and I think that’s what makes it all coherent.”

At Berklee, Hiromi caught the attention of veteran jazz bassist Richard Evans, who introduced the young pianist to his friend and longtime collaborator Ahmad Jamal. When it came time to record “Another Mind” (Telarc Jazz), her debut album, Jamal and Evans agreed to act as co-producers, lending the unknown’s effort instant credibility.

The music on “Another Mind” ranges from bouncy, smooth jazz to Kansas City blues to strutting, popping funk to open-ended, exploratory improvisation – sometimes all in one song.

“I studied classical starting at age six,” said Hiromi. “My teacher was also into jazz music and started showing me Errol Garner when I was eight, so I grew up listening to jazz and classical. Then when I went to high school I started listening more to rock and roll.

“I didn’t think I wanted to be a jazz piano player, just a piano player. I always wanted to be a pianist, and I love improvisation so much. You never know what’s going to come. I didn’t really think about the category of the music. I just wanted to be a pianist.”

King Wilkie

Perhaps it’s a measure of his influence that when the members of bluegrass outfit King Wilkie went looking for a name for their group, they adopted the moniker of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe’s horse. As heard on the group’s debut album, “True Songs,” the Virginia-based sextet, which performs at Club Helsinki next Thursday at 8:30, plays a hard-driving, rootsy style of bluegrass, favoring traditional material, soulful group harmonies, and tasty instrumental breakdowns. It’s a style that apparently is hardcore enough to appeal to the bluegrass devotees who attend the nearby Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, where the group appeared last summer, and New York’s CBGB nightclub, where the group has also performed. Actually, CBGB stands for “country, bluegrass, blues,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that King Wilkie would go over well at that urban oasis of punk-rock.

Rounding out Helsinki’s fourth-anniversary week of music are a bevy of encore performances by some house favorites, including soul-rock group the Holmes Brothers, Friday at 9; country-blues singer and storyteller Guy Davis, who plays on Sunday at 8; and Jewish world-beat outfit Pharaoh’s Daughter, next Wednesday at 8.

A few big names have recently been added to the schedule at Helsinki. Soozie Tyrell, the newest member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, brings her own group and songs to the nightclub on November 22. One week later, vocalist Julee Cruise, a sometime member of The B-52s perhaps best known for her work in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV series and movie, performs with New York City group The Hotheads. And on December 6, concertgoers will have a rare chance to hear Richie Havens up close and personal when the folksinger, who typically plays large theaters and concert halls, makes a rare club appearance.

Critic’s picks

Martha’s Vineyard might not seem like a hotbed of world music, but it is an island, after all. Perhaps that accounts for some of the island feel heard on “All One,” the latest recording by world-beat folk-rockers Entrain, who perform at La Choza (413-448-6100) in Pittsfield on Friday at 9. The decade-old group plays an original blend of groove-heavy, upbeat folk-rock that will appeal to fans of the Dave Matthews Band and Acoustic Junction.

Speaking of La Choza and grooves, about a half-year ago at the subterranean venue Boston-based Moonraker caught our attention with its hypnotic, entrancing grooves and the charismatic vocals and presence of frontwoman Kelli Scarr. The group has just released a terrific new, eponymously-titled CD on the Immergent label, and it features nine soulful, funky original tunes that should appeal to fans of everyone from Bjork to Portishead to Talking Heads to Ani DiFranco. Catch Moonraker on Friday at the Iron Horse (413-584-0610) in Northampton at 9:30 on a double-bill with Particle.

Speaking of Ani DiFranco, the righteous babe performs solo on Friday at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center (845-454-9800) in Poughkeepsie, tomorrow night at the Mullins Center (413-545-0505) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and again at the Lincoln Theatre (860-768-4228) at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., on Sunday, November 23. Her new solo configuration comes in advance of “Educated Guess,” her next album -- an intimate, dark, stripped-down affair on which she plays all the instruments and provides all lead and backing vocals – due out on her Righteous Babe label on January 20.

Irish group Solas long ago gave up any commitment to playing only “traditional” Irish music. And indeed, on the group’s newest CD, the first set of reels evolves into a full-fledged jam-rock exploration, and the second song, a version of Dan Fogelberg’s “Scarecrow’s Dream” sung by vocalist Deirdre Scanlan, opens with treated keyboards and percussion that would be at home on a Moby CD. The group, led by multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan and featuring fiddler Winifred Horan and accordionist Mick McAuley –appearing at the Iron Horse on Saturday at 7 -- can still do a straightforward jig with the best of them and favors acoustic arrangements, but the musicians clearly prefer to acknowledge their non-Irish contemporary influences rather than hide them.


Barenaked Ladies

“Everything to Everyone” (Reprise)

Barenaked Ladies’ songs inhabit a territory somewhere in between “Weird” Al Yankovic’s intentional rock parodies and the wiseguy rock of They Might Be Giants. Unfortunately, the band isn’t as funny as the former and not as clever as the latter. Instead, they make a very synthetic pop-rock that can’t be taken seriously and just isn’t howlingly funny. It’s to real music what soap operas are to Shakespeare. That, and they can’t sing worth spit. [ 11/9/03 ]

Belle and Sebastian

“Dear Catastrophe Waitress” (Rough Trade)

Belle and Sebastian – the nom de band of pop singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch – is equal parts fey and whimsical on its latest album, a return to form featuring plenty of bouncy, ‘60s-style chamber pop as well as salutes to r&b, new wave, disco and Bowie, as comfortable namechecking New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza as they are lifting the hook from “The Boys Are Back In Town” in a song that mentions Thin Lizzy. With his gifted melodicism and his command of an orchestral palette, Murdoch could well wind up as the 21st century’s answer to Brian Wilson. [ 11/9/03 ]

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 14, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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