LIVE: Hiromi: The Trio Project @ The Egg, 11/14/14
Review by J Hunter
Normally, I choose concerts the way I bet on horses at Saratoga: I go on track record, and what I’d heard from Hiromi did not fill me with enthusiasm for her recent appearance at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. The Japanese pianist’s recordings were beautiful, to be sure, but too classical, too technical. Well, you know how some people place a bet solely on what they heard from “some guy with a hot tip”? That’s what I was doing here, because earlier this year, Greg Haymes had told me in no uncertain terms that I HAD to see Hiromi in concert! When Greg Haymes enthuses, I listen… and BOY, I’m glad I did.
Sound shields covered the end of Hiromi’s grand piano, presumably so the vibrations from bassist Anthony Jackson’s singular bass sound. As it turned out, the shields may have been there to protect Jackson (who played the entire concert sitting next to the piano) from Hiromi’s jet exhaust. That concept wasn’t even hinted, though, as Hiromi bounced onstage, looking for all the world like a typical teenager – big friendly smile with accompanying wave, fun frizzed-up hairdo held in place by a black band with a white fake flower, white sleeveless top, black tights, black-and-white striped sneakers. No WAY this sweet little girl could hurt us, right?
The opener “Warrior” starts out slow, mournful and dark, accentuated by Johnson’s Marianas Trench-deep six-string contrabass… and then, in the blink of an eye, we were in the middle of a wild, off-time musical thundersnow, with drummer Steve Smith furiously countering Hiromi’s massive attack. The trio flew in skin-tight formation, working through intricate patterns that would make a mathematician scream “I QUIT!” Even at the oblique angle I was sitting at, I could see how wide Hiromi’s smile was as she played, her face inches away from the keyboard and her right leg swinging back and forth.
The piece peeled back as Hiromi played a heartfelt solo, with Smith hand-drumming to give her the space she needed. As things picked up, Smith switched to mallets, making the piece a jazz-fusion/classical hybrid, and Johnson’s sound got juicier and more fluid as all three players started to counter each other. After an appropriately massive solo by Smith, the piece returned to the furious head, and seemed to finish with the crash a booming piece like this required… except Hiromi went back to the quiet, mournful place where “Warrior” began, and THAT’S where it all ended!
The following tune “Player” started wild and off-time, too, but it developed a groove as fun as Hiromi’s hairdo, and she started having fun, too, playing while she was standing, as Jackson dropped a big fat solo, and Smith held the floor down. Hiromi’s lines became more inspired, less pre-programmed, with a little stride here and a little boogie-woogie there. “Dreamer” was more contemplative, with Hiromi playing low notes on the intro with one hand while muting the strings with her right. Her solos were split between single notes and fast flurries, with no long runs and Smith’s drum fills maintaining the tension. The deliberation, in the piece – and in Hiromi – was impressive.
What was more impressive, though, was the freedom to freelance (and, more to the point, just have fun) Hiromi showed throughout the night. We did see glimpses of her classical background: She sub-referenced Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” during her tune “Seeker,” and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” during a solo-piano rendition of “Green Tea Farm” – a tune she dedicated to her iconic mentor Ahmad Jamal, who was in the house watching his prize pupil. (“I am not standing on any stage without him,” Hiromi told us prior to “Green Tea.”) But she also sub-reffed Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre” during “Seeker,” and was deep into R&B and Latin jazz territory during the rambunctious “Margarita.” (“I hope I didn’t make it too strong,” she said, smiling coquettishly.)
Most of all, there was the obvious joy that Hiromi was taking in playing it wild and loose-ish. More than once during the set, she threw a huge grin over her shoulder that clearly said, “Oh boy, is this GREAT?!” Although she is now in her 30s, Hiromi’s personal vibe was that of a teenage girl who’s not only realized that she is indeed All That, but has finally figured out how to handle That properly. Both Jackson and Smith loved what Hiromi was throwing down, and were inspired by her as much as she was obviously inspired by them.
This show fortifies my contention that live music is better than almost any recording today. I heard from several people who shared my lack of enthusiasm for Hiromi’s recordings; in the elevator on the way out, I heard one man describe his girlfriend’s immediate disinterest in attending this concert. But things are different once a musician steps onstage, as adrenaline and crowd reaction are thrown into the mix. Anything can happen, and usually does if the players go with the flow. Hiromi is definitely going with the flow, and blossoming as an artist because of it… and if I’d kept to track record, I would have missed it, too.