23

Hiromi: Dancing and Smiling With Every Note

Courtesy Mari Amita

Jim Worsley BY

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I was going to do a three piano show with Chick Corea and Makoto Ozone in September. It would have been Chick's eightieth birthday.
—Hiromi
Few musicians have impacted the jazz and music world with the zeal and character of Hiromi. She paints on the finest palette, on par with the finest wine or richest chocolate. Her ambitious and superlative skills as a pianist are matched by the complexities and sheer genius of her compositions. Whether flying solo, in trio, quartet, and beyond, Hiromi brings her vibrance and innate chemistry to all that she touches. Now there are strings attached...to her bold new record. Hiromi talks about this epic journey, as well as her longtime friend and mentor Chick Corea, her Save Live Music campaign, many of the artists she has shared the stage with, the art of composition and arranging, her first brush with jazz at age eight, her passion for guitarists, and much more. So pour yourself a glass, or break off a piece of your most decadent spoils, relax, and enjoy.

All About Jazz: Hello. There you are (on FaceTime from Tokyo ).

Hiromi: Hi. How are you?

AAJ: Great. Well, there are at least three major items from this year alone to talk about. So diving right in on an upbeat note, let's talk about the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. People are still buzzing about your performance during the opening ceremonies. Not surprisingly you stood out above even the most lavish production. Tell us about it. You looked like you were having a great time. Certainly an honor to be chosen to represent your country in that fashion.

H; Yes. I am honestly honored every time I take the stage for a performance.

AAJ: That's wonderful. That's very well said. You looked radiant in that beautiful red dress. I know that your husband (Mihara Yasuhiro) is a fashion designer. Is that one of his creations? Is he highly involved with your wardrobe?

H: Yes it is. I always try to pick his dress. It depends. I really love his work.

AAJ: You two have been married for several years now, yes?

H: Yes, we have been married since 2007.

AAJ: Well, in addition to your creative wardrobe, you are known for having equally creative hairstyles. How did that get started?

H: (laughing) Well, in the beginning I had it like a lion.

AAJ: Yes, I recall that.

H: That started when I was at Berklee. There were so many Asian students there that my friend was getting compliments the next day on my show. They would tell her that she sounded great yesterday, when it was actually me. I understood that it was hard for some people to differentiate the face. So I thought maybe I needed something iconic to stand out. So the really big hair became associated with me.

AAJ: They could see you coming.

H: (laughing) Yes. So that's how that got started. Just to be clear that "Hi, it's me, it's Hiromi."

AAJ: And you have just taken that in may directions over the years.

H: Yes, people enjoy it and I love fashion. It's fun, and I try to do things that go with the music.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of seeing you in trio with Simon Phillips and Hadrien Feraud a few years ago at Catalina's Jazz Club in Los Angeles. My seat was directly facing Feraud in the middle. You and Phillips were both doing so much, were so very active that my head was on a delightful swivel the entire evening. I didn't want to miss anything either one of you were doing. I've seen and heard a lot of live music in my lifetime, but that ranked right at the top of most electrifying shows ever.

H: (laughing at the swivel comment) Thank you very much for that.

AAJ: That night that I saw you with Feraud was just shortly after Anthony Jackson had to quit the tour due to having a stroke. It's been a long haul, but I have heard that AJ is doing better these days and possibly will be playing again. Could you update us on what you know about AJ's health?

H: Well, yes I have spoken with AJ. He is teaching some online master classes at Berklee. That's his presence during this time. He is getting there. He is doing pretty well.

AAJ: Well, his health is obviously what really matters, but what a talent. We can only hope that he can once again share his gift with us all. The glow of the Olympic flame was dimmed by the sadness of the unexpected death of Chick Corea. You, of course, had a very special relationship with Chick. What can you share with us about Chick as musician, a composer, a friend, and a mentor?

H: I could speak for hours about his inspiration. But, you know, honestly speaking I still don't feel like it's true that he is gone. I can't see anybody right now. There are no festivals, nowhere to go. Normally I would see Chick two or three times a year at the festivals. Over time when that doesn't happen I suppose I will feel that he is gone. But now, in this world of Covid, I can't really feel that he is gone.

AAJ: Yeah, so it's almost as if somehow you didn't know, nothing would be any different in our current state.

H: Yes, because I am not able to see anyone. I can talk to them, but not in person. I was supposed to do a three piano show in September with Chick and Makoto Ozone. It would have been Chick's eightieth birthday and Makoto is turning sixty. So three generations.

AAJ: Oh my gosh. That would have been so wonderful.

H: I know and we were talking about it. Talking about what material we wanted to play last December. Last September I took his master class and we played "Spain" together remotely.

AAJ: Oh, what a truly great song. Certainly one of his finest compositions.

H: Yes. He just said "let's play something." So we weren't in sync, being online, but he would play and I would play something back. So we remotely played together. Makoto and I rehearsed just the other day. We are still planning to do the show and honestly it still feels like Chick will show up. Or that he has something else to do and can't make it this time but will come another time. It's a weird feeling to feel like he is still coming. Of course I know that he is gone. It just doesn't feel like it. When I first heard the news I thought of Gayle (Chick's wife) and all the family. I contacted all of them to share my feelings and concern for them. More time passed and it just didn't seem real. Like fake news or something.

AAJ: It does have a surreal feel to it. Perhaps we all knew he had so much more to do. So many projects in his mind. He just didn't have time to do them all. I talked to him in November. Just like this.

H: He was just fine, right?

AAJ: Yes, he was full of life, full of energy. One of the most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with.

H: I'm sure he was joking and having fun.

AAJ: Indeed, he was a lot of fun to talk with. Now you met him when you were only seventeen. How did that come about?

H: I was playing with my teacher at the Yamaha building and Chick just happened to be there rehearsing for his concert in the same building. So I heard that "Chick is in building." I went over to say hello and he asked me to play something. I played some little piece for him. Then he asked if I improvised. I said yes and we started playing together. We did a little four hand free improvisation. Then he asked me if I wanted to play with him tomorrow night at his concert.

AAJ: Wow, just like that.

H: Yeah, I was super happy. More than being nervous because I had been listening to his music for so many hours all of my life. Seeing his hands like just right there was really special.

AAJ: He clearly recognized something in you right away.

H: Maybe. I don't know. Because he was such an educator, he helped people everywhere. He was encouraging young kids to keep going and do what they were doing. He was doing that all over the world. I really have to get over it, but it will take more time.

AAJ: Understandingly so. Chick is obviously one of them, but who all were your inspirations as a young pianist? Jazz or otherwise.

H: The first two jazz pianists that I was introduced to at eight years old were Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson. My classical teacher happened to be a big jazz fan, so she played it for me. For the first time when I started paying classical at six years old I now felt like the notes were dancing and smiling. And I loved it.

AAJ: And you have been smiling and dancing with it ever since.

H: (laughing)

AAJ: So, do you come from a musical family?

H: No

AAJ: Amazing. Fast forwarding a bit, you later attended Berklee. I have spoken to several former Berklee students who tell me that as much as they grew as pianists or guitarists or whichever their instrument is, they went to Berklee more to study composition or arrangement or some other aspect of music. Was that the case for you?

H: Composition and arrangement, yes. I was studying mostly about the instruments that I don't play.

AAJ: This helped you play better in conversation with them?

H: Yes, but also to write for them. I was writing a lot.

AAJ: During that time Ahmad Jamal took you under his wing. This had to be very important to your development.

H: I had of course already listened to all of his stuff, so he was already an influence. But my arranging teacher had been good friends with Ahmad for many years and was able to introduce me to him. He played one of my pieces on the phone to Ahmad. After that it was because of Ahmad that all these doors started opening in the United States.

AAJ: I was going to ask you what was your first big break was coming out of college and beginning your professional career. It clearly had something to do with Ahmad Jamal.

H: Yes, actually it was opening for him at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 2002. That was before I even graduated. I'll never forget that moment. It felt so amazing. I met all these heroes that I had been listening to. I met Mulgrew Miller. I met Kenny Barron. I met all these legends. Wow, they are all real (laughing). I still have all the photos. I will never forget that moment. It was so amazing.

AAJ: Later you met Stanley Clarke and did a couple of records with him. What was that experience like?

H: Oh, well Stanley is an amazing musician. He was a lot of fun to play with. He is a one and only. I learned a lot playing with Stanley on the tours we played together. We did trios, duets, and quartets. It was all really terrific.

AAJ: Of course, you had already done a few of your own records as a leader by then. Including your Sonicbloom records. Those were terrific—t's what first introduced me to your music.

H: Thank you. Those were a lot of fun.

AAJ: The other item on the docket from this year is your new record. Silver Lining Suite (Telarc, 2021) is, I believe, due to be released soon. Please tell us all about your new project writing for and playing with strings.

H: I was stuck at home through most of 2020.

AAJ: Like everyone else, unfortunately.

H: Yes, so the only thing I could do was to write. The Blue Note in Tokyo, who I have a longtime relationship with, couldn't open because of the Covid. It is mostly International musicians that come to play at the Blue Note and, of course, no one could come. Everything was canceled. So I had a long talk with them and basically said "let's do something." I offered to do a live show called Save Live Music. The first run I did sixteen days, thirty two solo shows. We had limited capacity of fifty percent. That was in August and September of 2020. Then we did a second edition of Save Live Music in December and January in which I performed along with a tap dancer that I had first done a show with way back in 2006. Then I was looking for something different to do and, of course, no one could travel into the country. So I put together a show with a violinist that I had performed with in 2015. I had written a piano concerto in 2015 that we did together. The orchestra director at that time was really curious about jazz and improvisation. He wasn't square, he was very open minded. So I thought that maybe a piano and string quartet might be a good project. Listening to Chick's Lyric Suite for Sextet (ECM, 1982) was helpful in that.

AAJ: I wondered about that, actually.

H: Yes, it is such a wonderful album. The more I thought about it the more I thought it would be fun to write for strings. So I called him and he was very excited about it. So that led to me writing for strings for Silver Lining Suite.

AAJ: Oddly enough if it hadn't been for the pandemic this project wouldn't have happened. Or at least not at this time.

H: No, it wouldn't have if I had been touring. I wrote about the journey of the pandemic. Four iconic emotions that started with isolation. The second being the unknown. Fighting against the unknown. The unknown virus. The uncertainty of that. The third one I called drifters, as in drifting. Along and not sure where I'm going. The fourth being fortitude. I don't want to be defeated by this. I don't want to give in mentally. I have to fight against it. Just keep fighting and keep fighting. The way to keep fighting and prove it to myself was to keep writing music. To not be defeated and keep writing music.

AAJ: Well, we can be glad that you did. It's a courageous, if not epic effort. Unfortunately, it's still difficult if not impossible, to play shows outside of Japan at this time, to be able to tour in support of the record. I have to tell you that I got excited for a moment when I saw Phoenix Hall listed on your tour. Until I realized it's not Phoenix, Arizona!

H: (laughs) [Phoenix Hall is in Hiroshima]

AAJ: Your previous record, Spectrum (Telarc, 2019), is, in my humble opinion, one of the best solo piano records I have ever heard. It really is brilliant. I know that you were planning to tour in support of Spectrum, as I had tickets to see you at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Alas, like so many others, a casualty of the pandemic. Any thoughts, he said hopefully, of rescheduling any of those dates?

H: I hope so. I have much to schedule. As I would like to tour with the Silver Lining Suite as well.

AAJ: Well, you'll just have to open for yourself.

H: ( laughs) Yes, I could play solo and with my quintet!

AAJ: Just finishing up on Spectrum, I have to say you blew my mind the first time I heard you connect The Who, John Coltrane, and George Gershwin into one epic song.

H: Thank you. Yes, a whole lot of blue!

AAJ: I really appreciated your comment that several years ago you had three shades of blue to play and that now you have ten. Does that growth come more from developing your playing or from life experiences or perhaps a combination of the two?

H: I think I would have to say a combination of the two. You know, the sweet and sour of life (laughing). You get more blues (laughing).

AAJ: Indeed. I meant to ask this earlier, before you went to Berklee you spent some time writing jingles for television spots. I'm guessing you had fun with that.

H: For me it was like writing for a film soundtrack. You see an image in what you are writing. Whether it's for fifteen seconds or thirty seconds, it doesn't matter. I was writing music for it. I didn't really feel like I was writing a jingle. I did that while I was going to school. Before I went to Berklee. But I was mostly playing shows, that is what I have always wanted to do.

AAJ: Were you able to jump right in to playing shows when you first got to Berklee.?

H: The first day I was there I went into the recital office and asked and let them know I wanted to play shows. I was told that first semester students weren't allowed to do that. I was disappointed, "I can't play a concert this month or next month?" I was told I had to wait until the second semester. I applied that day and started playing as soon as I could.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier learning about all the other instruments at Berklee so that you could write for them. Can you tell us a little about that process.?

H: I feel like a movie director when I write music. I want to know before I write who I am writing for. Their strengths, their character. Everything I can know. I write every day though. It's like keeping a journal for me. Sometimes maybe just a little piece and other times much more. But something everyday.

AAJ: That's great. So in addition to the piano, you are really into listening to the great guitarists, right? Are we talking Pat Metheny, Kenny Burrell, Jimi Hendrix or all of the above?

H: Pete Townshend.

AAJ: Well, now that makes sense based on "Rhapsody in Various Shades of Blue."

H: Jeff Beck.

AAJ: Oh yeah, you covered "Led Boots" a few years ago.

H: Oh and Frank Zappa.

AAJ: That's all great stuff. I love Jeff Beck.

H: He is super cool.

AAJ: As are you. This has really been a pleasure talking with you tonight, or in your case morning. It's only a sixteen hour time difference.

H: Yes, thank you. Very nice to talk with you too.

AAJ: Thank you so much Hiromi, We look forward to the Silver Lining Suite and seeing you perform live again.

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