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Hiromi Uehara

Hiromi Interview: Sonic Song Weaver

 

Keyboardist/composer Hiromi Uehara has been garnering fans worldwide ever since releasing her debut album, Another Mind, in 2003 on Telarc. That album shipped gold in her native country, Japan (100,000 units) and won the Recording Industry Association of Japan’s (RIAJ) Jazz Album of the Year Award. Mentored by Oscar Peterson, professionally encouraged and supported by Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi has since performed with some jazz’s legendary musicians, including Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Anthony Jackson, Lenny White and others—all before her recent 30th birthday. Her live performances are nothing short of riveting, whether playing at a small jazz club in NYC or Europe, or a sold-out 3,000-seat auditorium in Japan. All four of Hiromi’s subsequent albums (released by Telarc) have garnered both critical acclaim (cover stories for Keyboard, All About Jazz-LA and Goldmine) and several awards each, including Best Jazz Act at the Boston Music Awards, Guinness Jazz Festival’s Rising Star Award and Jazzman of the Year, Pianist of the Year and Album of the Year in Swing Journal’s Jazz Readers Poll for her album Spiral. She was recently invited by Stanley Clarke to perform on his first-ever traditional jazz trio album, Jazz in the Garden (also on Telarc) and will be touring with him this fall.

 

 

Hiromi’s most recent releases with her dynamic band, Sonicbloom, include the imaginative album of covers, Beyond Standard, and two new riveting in-concert DVDs, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom Live in Concert (with guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski, bassist Tony Grey and drummer Martin Valihora) and Hiromi in Concert (with Grey and Valihora). These two DVDs are, in a word: extraordinary. They’re must-have’s for any fan of creative compositional craftsmanship and instrumental prowess. Her new solo piano album, Place to Be, will be released in January 2010.

Abstract Logix: Some of your compositions are quite sophisticated and can be very challenging. They don’t always adhere to the same tried-and-true format of a lot of jazz standards and pop songs (verse, chorus, solos, verse, chorus, coda). Some of them remind me of the material written in classical music for a chamber ensemble. And yet, one of your band members refer to charts on stage; it’s all memorized. Please describe Sonicbloom’s rehearsal process.

 

 

Hiromi Uehara: My band members work hard, I guess {laughs}. I write down all the charts for them. And we keep on rehearsing until they get it. We just keep rehearsing together. Then they also practice by themselves and that’s how it goes, you know.

AL: Your music—both composed and during live improvisations—employs a lot of dynamics, not unlike classical music. Sometimes even within the same phrase, measure or subsequent notes and chords. You don’t always hear that in a jazz fusion ensemble, especially to the degree that Sonicbloom executes them. I think it gives your music much character.

HU: Thank you. We really focus on that element during rehearsals as well. Definitely, almost on a daily basis. I think it’s an important improvisational essence. Improvisation shouldn’t just be about the just notes. It should incorporate dynamics, how you phrase certain things, how you play it, express it … All of these things comprise improvising. That’s how I see it. Even like during the head of the song, or later during the heads-out section, if you play it even while varying the dynamics, then it can sound different than before. And I think that is part of improvisation. So I try to play things in a different way every day, so that way they get a new life every day.

AL: You recently released two amazing concurrent DVDs of Sonicbloom in concert [Hiromi’s Sonicbloom Live in Concert and Hiromi in Concert]. Yet I’ve recently heard that you’re not touring with them any longer, is that right?

HU: I am touring with Sonicbloom right now; we just finished several dates in the U.S. and Europe, as a matter of fact. But later this fall I will be touring again with the Stanley Clarke Trio and then later I’m going to be touring solo in support of my new CD, Place to Be. After that, I probably will be working on different projects after my solo CD.

 

 

AL: Does that encompass working with Sonicbloom again?

HU: Oh sure, that’s like my lifetime project so I’m going to somehow come back to it. I just want to do many different kinds of projects.

AL: But, as I see from your website [www.hiromimusic.com] that the band members of Sonicbloom changes periodically.

HU: That’s right.

AL: I’ve read that you compose some new music every day, whether it is just a theme or small motif or a larger piece …

HU: It depends on the song. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, the melody just lands. And that’s a very fortunate way of composing. When I see some amazing landscapes or am inspired by something I encounter, a melody or chord changes just come to me. That is the luxury way of writing music. The other way is I just always … I try to compose on an everyday basis by keeping a journal. I just write like four bars here or eight bars there and different ideas down. Then maybe a few weeks later, I just try to sum up everything I wrote … you know, it’s like a puzzle. Sometimes I’ll write things down on paper, or record them on to tape or even sing them in to my cell phone if I don’t have anything to write them down with, so I’ll remember them later.

AL: When you get that idea from seeing a landscape or a certain situation, or an ideas just emerges inside your brain, do you transcribe it immediately? What’s your process?

HU: I do write it down on the paper, I do record on tapes. But if I don’t have those things near me, then I’ll also record it on my cell phone. I’ll sing the melody line or rhythm in to the phone so I can remember it later.

AL: I saw Béla Fleck do that backstage once , only he had called his home answering machine. So what prompted you to release two concurrent DVDS of your live performances? Most artists only do one at a time. I think they’re both incredible, but it’s not always common for an artist or record label to release two in-concert DVDs simultaneously.

 

 

HU: I just had a high demand from my fans that they really wanted the DVDs. I’ve been having these requests for a long time and I’m happy I was able to make it happen. Even though they were each recorded several years ago, I was glad to be able to release them.

AL: I think both of them are absolutely amazing. The musicianship, the compositional craftsmanship, the quality of the recording and video production … I’m telling everybody I know about them. And about you!

HU: Thank you.

 

Hiromi Uehara

Hiromi Uehara

AL: So, reflecting on your previous and now a forthcoming tour with the Stanley Clarke Trio, what’s like to work with such giants as Stanley Clarke and Lenny White?

HU: It’s a purely amazing experience to play with these two legends. To witness their musical interplay … it’s like being on a luxurious boat. They just work so well together; they’ve playing—like what—forty years together? And they’re about twice my age, so there’s a lot of sagacity there. It’s amazing. I’m just doing my best to bring whatever I can to the ensemble.

AL: Are there plans for a second SCT album?

HU: You’d have to talk to Stanley, I don’t know.

AL: And after you tour with them in the fall, then you gear up for a tour to promote your new solo album.

HU: That’s right.

AL: Can you tell me a little bit about your new album?

HU: It’s called Place to Be and it’s a collection of the music I wrote … It’s like a traveling journal, because I tour so much and that I went to the places where I really felt the place to be. It’s songs from different countries. Eighty percent of the songs are my own compositions and there are a few cover arrangements.

 

 

AL: I take it some songs are more through-composed whereas others are more improvisational?

HU: That’s right.

AL: Did you intentionally try to embrace any world music-type scales or rhythms that were indigenous to the countries you visited?

HU: I didn’t really go in that direction. It’s more like, when I saw the scenery in Sicily, for example, then I just composed something because I was inspired by what I saw. I didn’t really go in that direction, such as consciously incorporating a particular style or genre. If it happens, okay. But it’s not what I set out to do, usually.

AL: I know you’ve performed with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and you’ve composed jingles for major Japanese companies such as Nissan. Would you ever compose for piano and orchestra?

HU: I am trying to, yes {laughs}.

AL: What about film scores? Is that something you aspire to do someday?

HU: Yeah, yeah definitely. I’ve never written an entire film score but I have done main themes for films and a few dramas in Japan. It’s definitely something I’m very interested in because when I write music, it’s very visual for me.

AL: Composing for film and TV might be a very interesting topic of conversation for you and Stanley to get in to, because I know he’s successfully transitioned in to an award-winning composer for those mediums.

HU: Definitely. But we haven’t talked about that yet. Perhaps we’ll have time to do so this fall {laughs}.

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