I used to read Down Beat magazine and my favorite section was the blindfold test where notable artists would listen to tunes selected for them to critique. When you got someone like Miles Davis listening to something he thought was crap he wasn't shy about saying so. What I don't remember even Miles at his meanest saying, Take that shit off. That bitch can't play."
Name an instrument and if there's a man who is playing it, odds are there's a woman who can too. The individual style in which one player employs may identify them as a man or a woman, but unless you see who's playing how can you tell if its Cindy Blackman or Harvey Mason behind the drum kit? Jazz has one hard, fast rule: you got to be able to play and if you can gender has nothing to do with it. It really is true it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
Duke Ellington nailed it when he say there were only two types of music: good and bad. If you can't play it does not matter if you stand in the men's room or you sit in the ladies room.
Hiromi Uehara plays good. REALLY good. There's real jazz and fake jazz. In real jazz there is improvisation, virtuosity, spontaneity, a willingness to take risks and a spirit of adventure where the artist does not settle for the safe and familiar but is willingness to explore the limits of both their instrument and their imagination. None of those qualities have a damn thing to do with a Kenny G. record. That is fake jazz. Now I like light jazz every so often. It's like a Big Mac and fries. Far from gourmet dining but perfectly adequate and acceptable when your tastes aren't that demanding. But real jazz gives the listener many a moment of true artistry that makes the listener say, damn."
Hiromi gives me a lot of DAMN" moments. She was a student at the Yamaha School of Music and continued on at The Berklee School of Music where on a full scholarship she had the opportunity to play with Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal. Jamal co-produced her 2003 debut album, Another Mind, which as a review in Allmusic.com wrote shows off Hiromi playing with an almost demonic energy and amazing stamina." Hiromi came to my attention while on a trip to Nashville, I road tested Another Mind and was blown away by her powerful technique.
Here's an analogy that if you've never heard of Hiromi is going to sound ridiculous but follow where I'm going here. What was it like the first time you really heard Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen show what they could do with a guitar in their hands? For me, when I heard Hendrix doing Machine Gun" on Band of Gypsies, I became a fan for life. It took me longer to warm up to David Lee Roth's vocals than it did Eddie Van Halen's string shredding pyrotechnics on Eruption."
Those are Holy Crap! I've never heard anyone play a guitar like that! moments.
That's what listening to Hiromi is like. She's to the piano what a Hendrix and Van Halen are to the guitar. Yeah, she's that good.
Oh, I can hear what you're thinking. But unless you can do better than this you should not doubt me.
Sometimes I despair when another jazz icon like Hank Jones and Billy Taylor passes on, but my hope for the genre is rekindled when I hear young lions like Hiromi blowing my mind with her jaw-dropping performance of Choux à la Creme" from her solo piano album, Place To Be, which was a slam dunk for inclusion on my Best of list for 2010.
It would be one thing if Hiromi were just an affirmative action hire adding a bit of diversity to the man's man world of jazz, but that would be selling her short. You don't get tabbed by Stanley Clarke to handle the piano duties as part of his acoustic trio if you don't have serious chops. She does. Yes, she can play fast and coax sounds out of those 88 keys others either have not or can not, but she understands the tradition as well. She's not just a prodigy; she's a student in a genre where she is not yet a master.
But she's getting there. In a hurry.
To play jazz in America is to play without much fame or fortune laboring in relative musical obscurity where only the enlightened few know how good you really are. That's what I see as the greatest good I can do as a music critic and that's to do my small part to provide some exposure to artists that don't deserve to be ignored just because they aren't on American Idol or starting stupid Twitter wars.
NPR isn't the first place that comes to mind as a oasis in the desert for jazz, but it is. Somebody there has taken a particular shine to Miss Uehara. There's a lot of music and video links on their website including an interview and performance on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz show. McPartland is no slouch on the keyboard, but she had to shake her head in astonishment over how fast and strong Hiromi's playing is.
There's still a certain degree of hey, look what I can do" to Hiromi's approach to piano, but hell she's only 32 years old. She's still having fun learning what she can do with her instrument of choice. When you got the audacity to juxtapose Gershwin's I've Got Rhythm" and Ellington's Caravan" with Led Boots" from Jeff Beck's Wired as she did on her album of covers, Beyond Standard, its obvious Hiromi is a serious musician that doesn't take herself too seriously.
Allow Hiromi a few youthful musical flourishes. The girl can flat out play the hell out of a piano. As she said in a 2004 interview with a certain dazzled writer, I play the piano with my whole body. I was always trying to find the sound that I liked. I listened to many musical giants from jazz to classical. They had such a huge sound and I'm really smalllike short? I couldn't get the sound because I'm too short. I don't have big hands and long arms. When I started playing with my whole body I finally could get the whole sound."
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