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Hiromi headlines Proctors' gathering of jazz pianists at their summit
By R.J. DeLuke Special to the Times Union
Published 12:00 a.m., Thursday, March 31, 2011
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Cedar Walton (Courtesy Proctors)
Pianist Hiromi Uehara -- known in the music world simply as Hiromi -- doesn't want to classify her music simply as jazz, because her influences are many and her love of music knows no stylistic boundaries.
Yet her identity and associations are firmly planted in the world of jazz. There are few players with the kind of fierce chops she possesses. But even as this virtuoso participates Friday in the Jazz Piano Summit tour that comes to Proctors in Schenectady, she looks upon it with the awe of a jazz fan.
The summit features three outstanding pianists of different eras. Hiromi joins Cedar Walton, 77, one of the great veterans and a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master, and Jacky Terrasson, 44, one of the distinct voices of his era on the instrument. All will play solo numbers and the pianists will combine in various contexts as well.
"I'm very, very excited. I'm planning to be on the side of the stage listening to them, the times I'm not playing," said the soft-spoken and humble artist from her New York City home a few days before the tour began. "I'm very excited to see what one instrument can deliver."
Hiromi, who turned 32 in March, has earned a superior reputation since coming from Japan in 1999 to the at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She dazzles with Oscar Peterson-like ability on the piano and the band she fronted for a time -- Sonicbloom -- was a killer group. She blows audiences away as a matter of routine. But she is looking forward to the Summit tour as an opportunity to learn more about her craft.
Of the venerable Walton, Hiromi said, "I've been listening to him from a very young age. It will feel strange to be on the same stage with him. He's not only a great pianist, he's an amazing composer as well. So I'm very excited to be on the same stage and hungry to learn more things."
Terrasson, she said, "is another amazing pianist ... When I play with a band, I don't get to listen to another piano player. So I'm so happy to listen to the other pianists treat the piano in a different way. I think each of us has a completely different way of dealing with the piano."
To get a taste of her solo chops, one need go no further than her last release, "Place to Be" (2009, Telarc), on which she blazes unaccompanied through 11 original compositions of varying styles. She was also part of the Stanley Clarke Band last year, joining the celebrated bassist and superb drummer Lenny White on a tour that also produced a record, "The Stanley Clarke Band" (Telarc), that in February won the Grammy for the best contemporary jazz album.
She's been dealing with the piano since the age of 6 and within a couple years she was listening to the recordings of jazz giants Peterson and Errol Garner. Hiromi was performing in Japan by age 12 and at 14 she went to Czechoslovakia to play with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. She eventually made it to Berklee. Between Boston and New York City, her horizons were greatly expanded.
"The music scene in Japan is big, but I never met so many musicians in my life (as when she came here) because I never went to music school in Japan. It was a big change, and I just loved every single minute of it. I met so many different musicians I got to play with so many people."
She grew as an artist and improviser among jazz musicians. But contends, "I just play music. I never really listen to music by genre. For me, there are only two genres of music: Music which moves my heart and music which doesn't. I just play music, which moves my heart and hopefully it moves other people's hearts as well.
"Definitely, improvisation is one of the biggest important aspects of my music. But even classical composers used to improvise," she said thoughtfully. "I don't feel bad that somebody calls me a jazz pianist. It's OK. I just want to leave the opportunity to the listeners of the music to decide."
She explained that the problem with labeling something as jazz might mean people with preconceived notions about the art form may not attend a show. "Then maybe I never get the chance to play for them. Know what I mean? It's very risky. I just want to be open for every single audience and every single opportunity. You never know."
About her prodigious chops, Hiromi said she's influenced by people like pianists Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladmir Horowitz, but "not only pianists, I love Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa. Many different people." The technique is just a tool to be used toward an end. "It's not the single most important thing. Playing music is very similar to speaking a different language. Trying to get as much of the vocabulary as I can and try to learn as many vocabularies so I can speak better. So I can express what I have in my heart better.
Hiromi has said little about the devastation of her homeland, except that she hopes people can pray for her countrymen and donate if possible. Meanwhile, she's formed a new trio with Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips on drums that will tour this summer, including a featured spot at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. Its first album, "Voice," comes out on Telarc in June.
R.J. DeLuke is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
Piano Jazz Summit
Hiromi, Jacky Terrasson, Cedar Walton
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
Tickets: $20, $30 and $40.
Info: 346-6204; https://www.proctors.org