Q&A with Hiromi on ‘Voice’

"Making an album is like I have stories to tell; I want to see the landscape in music that I have never seen before. For a concert, I always think today is my first and last, trying to put everything I have out." Credits: Sakiko Nomura

By Justin Tedaldi (JETAANY) for NY Japanese Culture Examiner

A native of Hamamatsu, Japan, pianist and composer Hiromi Uehara is one of the world’s top young international performers in jazz, winning a Grammy earlier this year for her work on Stanley Clarke’s most recent album. Today (June 7), she releases Voice, her seventh studio effort since 2003 and first as part of the Trio Project with bassist Anthony Jackson (Paul Simon, the O’Jays, Steely Dan, Chick Corea) and drummer Simon Phillips (the Who, Judas Priest, David Gilmour, Jack Bruce).

“When I play music, I realize that it really filters emotions,” says Hiromi. “I called this album Voice because I believe that people’s real voices are expressed in their emotions.” Tonight, the Berklee College of Music alum launches a six-night residency at New York City’s venerable Blue Note Jazz Club as part of its inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival. I caught up with the artist in this exclusive interview.

Your last album, Place to Be, was your first on solo piano. How did that experience influence your writing this time for Voice?

I have been trying to understand my instrument deeper since I started playing and making a solo piano record. Also, doing a lot of solo piano shows definitely made me get closer to the piano, and it helped my writing.

What kinds of goals in mind do you have when you record a new album? How about for a concert?

Making an album is like I have stories to tell; I want to see the landscape in music that I have never seen before. For a concert, I always think today is my first and last, trying to put everything I have out.

In recent years you’ve also recorded albums with luminaries like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. What were the most important things you’ve learned from them?

It was like every minute a learning experience, at all levels, not only music. They have so many drawers in their musicality and it was like going through a big library.

A big part of your style is your quicksilver runs across the keys. How did you develop this as your trademark, and are there ever times in concert when you feel like it’s a challenge to keep up that manic pace?

I never really thought about it as my trademark, I just play what I hear, what I have to say at that very moment, just like a conversation.

The toughest part of your job onstage that the audience might not realize is…

Definitely traveling.

What other kinds of music, style-wise, would you like to make an album out of in the future?

I never thought about music with categories, or kinds, so whatever comes to my mind, I will just play.

Who are some of your favorite Japanese jazz artists?

Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Last month I talked with your labelmate Stanley Clarke, who told me how happy you were to receive a Grammy for your participation on his album The Stanley Clarke Band. What does receiving this honor mean to you?

I was happy because everyone around me was so happy. I always want to live to make people around me happy, and the Grammy brought a lot of smiles to a lot of people around me.

Your composition “Labyrinth” from that album was recorded with your trio for Voice. How would you describe this new version?

Actually, I originally wrote this piece for my trio, so this is how I had in my mind originally.

I’ve noticed that you’ve been speaking a lot more English for interviews and at your concerts. Are you continuing to study it, and what kind of methods or techniques do you use that you can recommend to others who are learning a second language?

I do watch a lot of movies in English. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, speak speak speak!

In what ways has the Japanese music community banded together in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami devastation? What has your impression been of the United States and its entertainers’ relief efforts?

I went back to Japan right after the earthquake and did a lot of live radio and TV shows to perform live to cheer people up. I also went back in April to do eighteen benefit shows in Tokyo. I just wanted to do something for the country I love and only thing I could do was keep playing music, so I kept playing. I really would like to thank everyone from the U.S. for their efforts. We surely need continuous support and I will keep doing whatever I can do.

What new music have you been discovering these days that you enjoy listening to?

Glen Hansard.

Which venues in New York are you still eager to play that you haven’t performed at yet?

Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall.

What are some of your other personal highlights of your career so far?

Every single concert is a highlight for me.

What else do you still want to do and achieve?

I just want to keep playing and be able to express better what I want to tell in music.

Voiceis in stores now. Hiromi performs with the Trio Project at the Blue Note Jazz Club, 131 West Third Street (between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square West) at 8:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. June 7-12, and is on tour in the U.S. through June 26. Tickets at the Blue Note are $20 and $35. For more information, go towww.bluenote.net. Visit Hiromi online at www.hiromimusic.com.
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