Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!
The petite, dynamic, big-haired bundle of mesmerizing musical energy named Hiromi Uehara (official website) recently released her ninth solo album in eleven years. Titled “Alive” (Concord Music Group, 2014), it is arguably her most overtly jazz album. Yet it also contains plenty of fusion, rock, and, yes, prog influences, as have her previous releases, which are marked by an instantly recognizable combination of breathtaking technique, astounding precision and speed, complex time changes, and boundless, mind-boggling virtuosity. I’ve been following her career since her debut album, “Another Mind” (2003), and have been both amazed and enriched by her music.
However, one of the criticisms leveled against Hiromi, by some inside and outside the jazz world, is that her prodigious technical abilities tend to overshadow—or even overwhelm—other qualities, including nuance, emotion, and interpretive insight and dialogue. I think there is some merit to those criticisms, but I take them with a grain of salt. Frankly, the Argument From Lack of Emotion is, at best, quite subjective. Some people simply don’t like, or cannot handle, a cascade of notes (and last time I looked, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson are both, rightly, hailed as jazz greats; and Hiromi loves Peterson’s music). Plus, I think many such critics miss the apparent fact that Hiromi, while clearly working within the broad realm of jazz, is also very much a prog-rocker in her heart of hearts—as well as a player of funk, soul, R&B, metal, electronica and, well, you get the idea. And all of us here at Progarchy.com know how often prog rock is criticized for having an abundance of technique but a lack of emotion resonance, a criticism that almost alway tells me much more about the critic than it does the music.
Hiromi’s acknowledged influences include the obvious—Ahmad Jamal (a mentor, and a jazz giant), Chick Corea (they recorded a duet album), Bach and Franz Liszt (the classical influences are often front and center)—and the not so obvious, at least to many listeners: Dream Theater, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp. The short bio on ProgArchives.com site states, “Her style brings a wholly new approach to jazz fusion, as her prog influence is derived primarily from such artists as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa rather than earlier jazz fusion artists. Her music is almost orchestral in scope, and each of the musicians she plays with has a virtuosic grasp of their instrument, allowing for each instrumentalist to have an approximately equal role in the direction of the music. Her music is more melodious than traditional jazz fusion but with an equally complex sense of rhythm. Time signature changes are not in short supply here.” It’s impossible for a prog rock lover to hear, say, “Return of the Kung-Fu Champion” (from her second album, “Brain”), and not hear a lot of prog influences in the mix:
“Alive”, again, is probably Hiromi’s most consistently “jazz” jazz album, but that hardly means it is traditional fare. She is joined by contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson (Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Michel Camilo, The O’Jays and Chick Corea) and drummer Simon Phillips (Toto, The Who, Judas Priest, David Gilmour and Jack Bruce); the trio came together in 2011 and “Alive” is their third album together. From the Concord Music Group site:
“Alive has a double meaning for me,” Hiromi says. “I wanted to write songs that deal with things and emotions that we encounter in life. But the word Alive can also mean ‘played live.’ I’ve been performing with Simon and Anthony for four years. We’ve made three records together, and we’ve done so many live shows as a trio. We have a great time being adventurous, and I felt that we can make the record sound like a live recording in front of the audience.
That’s the great thing about having a working trio: We understand how to make each other shine. Anthony is an amazing improviser. He composes incredible counter-lines when I solo, and he always plays something to make [the music] shine even more. And Simon has an amazing tone and a beautiful sound on the drums; he’s like an orchestra. They can play anything, and they understand so many different genres of music. They have no boundaries. It’s been a great journey with this group.”
The title song (see video below) is a nine-minute-long piece that moves from rhapsodic passages to intense rhythmic interplay to ecstatic, melodic sections with seamless ease. The 75-minute-long album is, I think, Hiromi’s most fully realized artistic statement, rich with references to the jazz tradition, but continually pushing at the edges. More importantly, there is a really obvious quality of joyfulness and personality throughout, especially in the lovely solo piece, “Firefly,” and the following song, “Spirit,” which features a dynamic use of gospel motifs, showing once again that this talented lady is constantly expanding her horizons as she produces music of the highest caliber.