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Hiromi: The Trio Project at the Annenberg Center Live

Geno Thackara BY

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Hiromi: The Trio Project
Annenberg Center Live
Philadelphia, PA
April 1, 2016

She walks onstage without a word, makes sure to gesture towards the other players for their share of applause, and gives the cheering a minute to subside before getting down to business. The first song starts with a light cascade of high piano notes, the kind of slow intro that could usher in a classic acoustic set from any era. The crowd remains polite and hushed enough that you could almost imagine it's a refined formal recital.

Being a Hiromi performance, of course, it's going to be nothing of the sort. Within a minute she's reaching for the mini-Moog-style keyboard atop the piano and turning up the volume with a couple hazy shifting synth chords. In another moment her bandmates kick in and they're off on a wild flight of shifting dynamics and staggering virtuosity for the next two hours. It's the release-date show for her tenth album Spark, and its opening title track handily sets the tone for the rest of the night—an exciting groove that navigates a series of dizzyingly complex rhythms at lightning speed.

The album and tour feature her Trio Project with Simon Phillips (drums) and Anthony Jackson (contrabass guitar), and they clearly have the played-in telepathy that comes with working together for several years. The band navigates every breakneck twist and turn of the music without missing a step. The compositions always embody the idea of fusion through and through—not just following the obvious jazz/rock blending the term usually implies, but incorporating anything from gamelan rhythms to classical music, fuzzed-out 70s funk and good old rock and roll. Whatever the format, the three blaze through it all with energy to spare.

Hiromi is like a dervish, sometimes not even playing the piano so much as wrestling with it. At other times she serenely sits and mugs for the audience with big charming smiles, even as her right hand crazily snakes up and down the keys almost defying the laws of physics. It's understandable why some people find her style clinical or criticize her for self- indulgence; this is a balance of smarts and chops that could either leave the listener exhilarated or exhausted.

Regardless of how it comes across on record, however, Hiromi is never less than electrifying onstage. I'd defy anyone to watch her flailing and stomping, sometimes almost giving herself whiplash, and claim it's just a calculated exercise in flashy stunt playing. There's always a kick and a pulse to feel through your body even if you'd twist your brain into knots trying to count along.

There are brief moments when she's willing to slow the pace and let notes hang in the air, particularly the gently flowing solo piece that opens the second set. These pretty moments probably stand out more for being so rare. In this theater in the moment, though, the audience isn't complaining at all. The room is buzzed by the performance and more than happy to give that energy back when it's time to applaud. The evening wraps up with an epic Phillips drum solo, followed by the happy blues of "All's Well," which gives everyone a turn in the spotlight—and for the crowd happily jumping to its feet to send them off, all's certainly well indeed.

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