By: Jenifer Dravilas
JD: I really like your new CD, “Time Control.” Why did you pick “time” as your central theme and focus point for your new CD?
HU: Well, without thinking about it, time became my main focus and interest in my life because I always travel so much and I’m constantly feeling the time differences and I’m always jet lagged all through the year, so I didn’t have any choice. So it just naturally came to me – all of my compositions always come out from my daily life – and it just became a very interesting thing to focus on.
JD: That’s understandable and obviously time is very important in music too, right?
HU: Yes. I wanted to link the time in music and daily life.
JD: Which track do you personally like best on “Time Control” and why?
HU: I can’t choose. That would be very hard. I mean live performance situations change every day. You know, we never take the same route in the songs – it’s so improvised – so sometimes we find some treasures that we never found before in a tune. So a different tune shines every day so it’s interesting to find the potential of a song every single day. So it depends.
JD: Yes, I noticed that improvisation is obviously very important to you. How did you develop your improvisational skills?
HU: Well I was just trying to put my emotions into the music notes instead of words. And I was listening to great improvisers and trying to get ideas on how to improvise but when I get it I need to seek it out with my own words. It was like learning a different language. And I’m thinking when I play this chord at this particular moment what are the options and what can I create here?
JD: I was on your website and saw that you’ve been mentored and influenced by some jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal and others. What have been some of the most valuable lessons that you have learned from them?
HU: I’ve learned to never stop pushing yourself forward, never stop creating something new, and always keep your smile. They smile so much. It’s amazing. When I see them, when I’m having a conversation with them, they are such happy people. So I think that to keep smiling in your life is very important.
JD: That’s very good advice. And I’m sure it comes across in the music too. You can tell they are happy about what they are playing. So, I know “Time Control” is your 4th CD, at least for Telarc, how do you think your music has changed and progressed with each CD that you’ve made?
HU: Well the first album was a debut album so it was like introducing myself and the 2nd and 3rd album I was focused on my trio and the trio sound. I had toured with my trio for about three and a half years so then I was trying to build the triangle between us. Then when I started thinking about what I can do next I thought I could make another album with my trio but the thing is I could kind of expect what it would sound like and I always want to take risks in music and I always want to do something that I don’t know how it is going to turn out and I always enjoy the adventure. So I decided to do a new project involving one other player – who plays the guitar, Dave Fiuczynski – and see how that sounds.
JD: What do you feel each musician brought to “Time Control”?
HU: Well Dave Fiuczynski definitely broke the trio triangle that we had in a very good way because he was exactly what I was looking for when I decided to have a fourth person. Because otherwise it would have just sounded like the trio plus one. I really wanted all three of us to be neutral and add something completely different. So in that sense he was just a really strong tasting spice. It made me find a new approach that I never used before in times of coping with another chordal instrument, the guitar, such as when to play and when to shut up. And the bass player Tony Grey – I’ve been playing with him for more than two years – he is really just a one of a kind musician. He plays the bass and of course he has that spacey groovy sound but he really plays high strings like a guitar – so it was like I had 2 guitar players in the band. And he has such a warm sound and also a really dark sound as well so he’s a very colorful player. And my drummer, Martin Valihora, is a very unique drummer who plays the drums like he’s singing on the drums. I hear melodies when he plays. He’s very musical.
JD: I noticed that you recorded your CD in Nashville, TN. Was that your first time to record there?
HU: No, it was my third time.
JD: Why Nashville?
HU: Because there is a piano there that I really love! I just fell in love with that piano when I first recorded in Nashville. It is such a beautiful piano. And I can only see her like once a year. I really enjoy playing her – it such an amazing piano. It has the perfect sound that I’m looking for. It’s really warm and very nice.
JD: What type of piano is it? Is it a Yamaha?
HU: Yes, a Yamaha CO3.
JD: Can you describe a bit about your song writing method? What inspires you to write?
HU: It doesn’t need to be something special. It can be just from daily life. It’s all about if you can see it, that special thing or not. My life is not that dramatic. So I just try to find something that could be music. I’m always like looking for ideas and concepts which are actually surrounding my daily life. So it just happened to be “time” this time.
JD: I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times, but how would you describe your music? I know it somewhat defies being categorized. And what are you trying to communicate ultimately to the listener?
HU: Well I’m just trying to speak out my emotions through music. So it’s something very emotional and energetic. It is very hard to categorize my music. You listen to it and you name it. And I don’t mind that – I don’t want to categorize myself because that would actually limit the number of people who would listen to my music. You know, if I say it’s classical than only classical lovers will come and if I say it’s rock than only rock fans will come. I think my music has the potential to go over a category so that’s why I don’t really like categorizing myself.
JD: Do you have a dream list of musicians who you’d like to play with whom you’ve not played with yet?
HU: Robert Fripp. King Crimson. Jeff Beck. Hmmm. Who else? The London Symphony Orchestra. The New York Philharmonic. The Boston Philharmonic.
JD: How did you first get exposed to jazz? I know you did at a relatively young age.
HU: My first piano teacher was a huge fan of jazz music. She had so many LPs of jazz. I found she was listening to jazz greats like Oscar Peterson and really loved it. She told me that all this music is not written but improvised and you can play whatever you feel like at the moment. And I was like “Wow! That’s great. I don’t need to read music anymore!” (laughs)
JD: I know you play all over the world, but how would you specifically describe the differences in how an American vs. a Japanese audience responds to your music?
HU: Japanese fans are quieter in general than any other listeners in the world. You know, we are just born like that. It’s very respectful. People will be smiling, but not screaming or anything like that.
JD: Whose music do you like to listen to in your spare time?
HU: I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. I really enjoy that. I love movies and it’s very interesting for me to listen to how someone scores the music for visuals because I always see visuals when I write.
JD: Mostly modern movies or older movies?
HU: It really doesn’t matter – any movies. These days one of the soundtracks that I really love is the soundtrack for “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s a beautiful soundtrack, so I’ve been listening to it a lot.
JD: I understand you’ve written some advertising jingles in the past. What did you learn from that experience and do you still do that today?
HU: No I don’t. But I did just do the main theme for a feature film in Japan. So again I enjoy scoring for visuals.
JD: What’s your opinion on how the music industry at large is changing?
HU: It’s changing very much. Lots of downloading. But the only thing that never changes is live concerts. I mean you can burn CDs, you can download music, you can see videos on YouTube, but live performances are the only thing that have never actually changed for a long, long time. People have always come to see concerts and have fun. It’s such a direct communication between the artist and the listener. And I think we the musicians should be very responsible for that. I think we should thank the fans for spending 2 hours of their day with us.
JD: What direction do you see your music going in the future? Do you know what you want to do next?
HU: I don’t know. I just released my record so I’m just thinking about what I can do with this music so far. But I just want to keep playing and have more experiences musically and in life so that I can have more vocabularies.
JD: If people would like to come hear you play live where are you performing now and will you be coming to Chicago in the near future?
HU: On June 21st I will be performing at Ravinia in Highland Park. And I’m currently touring right now. I just finished a week at the Blue Note in New York. And then I’m going to Yoshi’s in Oakland, California and then on to Seattle.
JD: How did the gigs go at the Blue Note? Were you pleased with them?
HU: Yes. The audience was great! It’s so nice to play at the Blue Note.
JD: Thank you again Hiromi for taking the time to discuss your music and let the fans in Chicago know you better.
Hiromi Uehara first mesmerized the jazz community with her 2003 Telarc debut, Another Mind. The buzz started by her first album spread all the way back to her native Japan, where Another Mind shipped gold (100,000 units) and received the Recording Industry Association of Japan’s (RIAJ) Jazz Album of the Year Award. The keyboardist/ composer’s second release, Brain, won the Horizon Award at the 2004 Surround Music Awards, Swing Journal’s New Star Award, Jazz Life’s Gold Album, HMV Japan’s Best Japanese Jazz Album, and the Japan Music Pen Club’s Japanese Artist Award (the JMPC is a classical/jazz journalists club). Brain was also named Album of the Year in Swing Journal’s 2005 Readers Poll. In 2006, Hiromi won Best Jazz Act at the Boston Music Awards and the Guinness Jazz Festival’s Rising Star Award. She also claimed Jazzman of the Year, Pianist of the Year and Album of the Year in Swing Journal Japan’s Readers Poll for her 2006 release, Spiral. Hiromi continues her winning streak with the 2007 release of Time Control and in 2008, Beyond Standard. Both releases feature Hiromi’s super group, Sonic Bloom.
Born in Shizuoka, Japan, in 1979, Hiromi took her first piano lessons at age six. She learned from her earliest teacher to tap into the intuitive as well as the technical aspects of music.
“Her energy was always so high, and she was so emotional,” Hiromi says of her first piano teacher. “When she wanted me to play with a certain kind of dynamics, she wouldn’t say it with technical terms. If the piece was something passionate, she would say, ‘Play red.’ Or if it was something mellow, she would say, ‘Play blue.’ I could really play from my heart that way, and not just from my ears.”
Hiromi took that intuitive approach a step further when she enrolled in the Yamaha School of Music less then a year after her first piano lessons. By age 12, she was performing in public, sometimes with very high-profile orchestras. “When I was 14, I went to Czechoslovakia and played with the Czech Philharmonic,” she says. “That was a great experience, to play with such a professional orchestra.”
Further into her teens, her tastes expanded to include jazz as well as classical music. A chance meeting with Chick Corea when she was 17 led to a performance with the well-known jazz pianist the very next day.
“It was in Tokyo,” Hiromi recalls. “He was doing something at Yamaha, and I was visiting Tokyo at the time to take some lessons. I talked to some teachers and said that I really wanted to see him. I sat down with him, and he said ‘Play something.’ So I played something, and then he said, ‘Can you improvise?’ I told him I could, and we did some two-piano improvisations. Then he asked me if I was free the next day. I told him I was, and he said, ‘Well, I have a concert tomorrow. Why don’t you come?’ So I went there, and he called my name at the end of the concert, and we did some improvisations together.”
After a couple years of writing advertising jingles for Nissan and a few other high-profile Japanese companies, Hiromi came to the United States in 1999 to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. For as open as her musical sensibilities had already been when she came to the U.S., the Berklee experience pushed her envelope even further.
“It expanded so much the way I see music,” she says. “Some people dig jazz, some people dig classical music, some people dig rock. Everyone is so concerned about who they like. They always say, ‘This guy is the best,’ ‘No, this guy is the best.’ But I think everyone is great. I really don’t have barriers to any type of music. I could listen to everything from metal to classical music to anything else.”
Among her mentors at Berklee was veteran jazz bassist Richard Evans, who teaches arranging and orchestration. Evans co-produced Another Mind, her Telarc debut, with longtime friend and collaborator Ahmad Jamal, who has also taken a personal interest in Hiromi’s artistic development. “She is nothing short of amazing,” says Jamal. “Her music, together with her overwhelming charm and spirit, causes her to soar to unimaginable musical heights.”
At 26, Hiromi stands at the threshold of limitless possibility, constantly drawing inspiration from virtually everyone and everything around her. Her list of influences, like her music itself, is boundless. “I love Bach, I love Oscar Peterson, I love Franz Liszt, I love Ahmad Jamal,” she says. “I also love people like Sly and the Family Stone, Dream Theatre and King Crimson. Also, I’m so much inspired by sports players like Carl Lewis and Michael Jordan. Basically, I’m inspired by anyone who has big, big energy. They really come straight to my heart.”
But she won’t, as a matter of principle, put labels on her music. She’ll continue to follow whatever moves her, and leave the definitions to others.
“I don’t want to put a name on my music,” she says. “Other people can put a name on what I do. It’s just the union of what I’ve been listening to and what I’ve been learning. It has some elements of classical music, it has some rock, it has some jazz, but I don’t want to give it a name.”
For more information, please visit Hiromi’s website at: http://www.hiromimusic.com