The Energy Is One: An Interview with Hiromi Uehara
“ There are so many great piano trios in the history of jazz. It offers such simple instrumentation, but the orchestral possibilities are so profound. ”
All About Jazz: Your earliest musical studies were at the Yamaha School of Music. Please describe your experience there. Was this in Tokyo?
Hiromi Uehara: It was in Shizuoka, where my home was. I first attended this school when I was five years old. I also attended a regular elementary school, and I was taking piano lessons with a local teacher. I began to study composition at the Yamaha school. And I continued to study there until the age of 15.
AAJ: How did you decide to study piano?
HU: My mom really wanted to study piano when she was a kid, but she wasn't able to take lessons. So that is why she wanted me to do this, and she brought me to the piano lessons.
AAJ: Have you studied other instruments besides the piano?
AAJ: Well, the piano can sound like a whole orchestra.
HU: Yes, I think so too!
AAJ: How did you first encounter jazz?
HU: It was through my first piano teacher. She loved jazz so much. She had so many LPs of jazz music'Errol Garner was one of her favorites. She was a pure classical teacher, but at the same time, she loved jazz. She helped me to listen to an Errol Garner album when I was eight years old. Obviously, I showed so much interest in the music that she asked me if I wanted to begin to improvise. So she had me improvise on classical pieces'by Mozart, Haydn. Then I started to just play around with classical music on my own, improvising on the tunes. That's how I got into jazz music. Then I started to explore more jazz LPs, in my teacher's collection.
AAJ: When you were young, did you think that jazz was a popular music in Japan?
HU: No, I don't think so. Well, it was really popular in my world! Because my teacher loved it so much, and I got that from her.
AAJ: Were you aware of Japanese jazz artists as you became interested in the music?
HU: I started to listen to Japanese jazz musicians when I went to high school. Some people I listened to were Yosuke Yamashita, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sadao Watanabe.
AAJ: Do you think of jazz as popular in Japan now?
HU: I think the mainstream music in Japan now is pop music. Japanese pop. Do you know enka? It is the old, traditional style of Japanese music. The singers dress in kimonos and this is still popular. But I think jazz musicians are trying so hard to open the doors for young people to listen to something different in music. I listened to a lot of jazz on TV commercials in Japan. But among jazz styles, I think Japanese people still like the older, more traditional styles of jazz. Music of the swing era. And the bebop era.
AAJ: Blue Note Records.
HU: Yes, Blue Note Records. Also, vocal jazz.
AAJ: Then the Japanese must like Norah Jones.
HU: Oh, yes, they like Norah Jones. I like her too. Such beautiful music.
AAJ: How did you decide to come to the States to study at Berklee?
HU: I wanted to study orchestration and arranging more.
AAJ: Were you encouraged by your teachers in Japan to go to Berklee?
HU: No. Actually, I was playing jingles for commercials on TV when I was in Japan, for two years. I started to get involved in orchestration, and I began to realize how deep it can go. I realized that I need to study this more. And, I really wanted to come to the States, from a very early age. I really loved jazz, and jazz is from the States. I wanted to come to the place where jazz was born. I thought the timing was right for me to come.
AAJ: When I interviewed Gary Burton from Berklee, we talked about how many Japanese students attend Berklee.
HU: And how many?
AAJ: He said about 10% of the student body comes from Japan. About 300 students. In your experience, do the Japanese students there hang out together, or do they pursue friendships with students from all over?
HU: It varies. I think there are three types of Japanese students there. The first type would be Japanese people who only hang with Japanese people. The second type are those who only hang with Americans, or others, non-Japanese people. The third type hang with everybody, anybody. And I was the third type. But I really appreciate the fact that there are so many Japanese students here because Japan is where I came from.. Speaking Japanese makes me feel really comfortable.
AAJ: When you were at Berklee, did this give you opportunities to play in public'in clubs? Were you able to make good contacts?
HU: Being there gave me the chance to make a contact with Ahmad, Ahmad Jamal. Meeting him was the greatest, biggest opportunity for me. But I also met so many amazing musicians at Berklee, including my teachers, and other students. For example, my drummer is a teacher at Berklee. Also, at Berklee I was able to get gigs playing in piano bars, playing at weddings.
AAJ: You mentioned Ahmad Jamal, and you have also met and played with Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea. All outstanding pianists. Do you feel inspiration from other instrumentalists too?
HU: I love guitarists. The guitar is a favorite instrument of mine.
AAJ: Have you met Pat Metheny?