Hiromi fuses styles
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 16, 2003) – Much of the early word on pianist Hiromi Uehara, whose debut album hasn’t been out for a whole year yet and who only last spring graduated from Berklee College of Music, involves imagery invoking extreme geological activity and sports. Her playing has been compared to volcanoes, earthquakes and tidal waves, and critics frequently note that her performance is physical to the point of being athletic.

And all this is true, as seen and heard at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, where the 24-year-old pianist, who goes by her first name only, led her trio through two frenetic, energetic sets in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

Hiromi, who writes all her own music, kicked off the evening with her blistering funk/bebop tune, “XYZ.” Built upon an odd-metered, rhythmic ostinato played in unison by her left hand and by electric bassist Tony Grey, the piece featured the trio at its best, in fast stops and starts, bursts of color, and dizzyingly long bebop runs concluding in full fist slams on the piano keyboard.

“Desert on the Moon” was a more varied journey, opening with a light, glistening, watery melody in the upper piano register before it sped up and morphed into an impetuous bossa nova. Hiromi inserted a few phrases from “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” that, unmoored from their original rhythms, took on a funk pulse as played, before she steered the piece back to the watery garden from where it first began to flow.

“Legend of the Purple Valley,” based on a Japanese folk tale, was her strongest narrative effort, making the greatest use of pauses and silences, in which her notes audibly carved away at the rock face of the fable to reveal the Buddha statue hidden within. “Binary Set” was one of several tunes on which Hiromi played both piano and synthesizer, using the electronic keyboard to evoke the funky sound of ‘70s soul machines like clavinet, playing with pitch control and jumping up from her piano bench in displays of the physical athleticism they talk so much about.

At their best, Hiromi’s compositions were full of dazzling chromatic shifts, and her trio, which included drummer Martin Valihora, was sensibly functional, mostly staying out of her unpredictable way and letting her careen around in her frenetic improvisations.

In her melodies and harmonizations, however, Hiromi more than occasionally falls victim to cliché. Some of her more pop-jazz inclinations wind up sounding like TV sitcom theme music (her “If” reminded me of the theme to “Taxi,” if my memory serves me well). And while at its most adventurous her playing recalls the percussive experimentation of Cecil Taylor, at its catchiest it derives from Bruce Hornsby’s light-pop fare.

That’s a lot of territory to cover, but with her youthful energy and – dare I say it – her Olympian talent, Hiromi might just be able to fuse those seemingly irreconcilable styles.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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