Is Hiromi Uehara the best pianist in the world?
The thing about musical innovation is that it inevitably becomes canonical. Whenever a Niccoló Paganini or a Charlie Parker comes along, a genius with an approach so bold and new it shocks listeners and offends the musical establishment, the academy will eventually make that the new standard.
These days, places like Berklee College of Music out talented young musicians, all with expert training and awareness of the giants whose shoulders they stand on — Parker, Monk, Hendrix and so on. But those guys cast long shadows. It's rare you hear young jazz players doing anything you really haven't heard before, innovations in a whole different ballpark from Bird or Miles.
Every so often, though, you'll find yourself cold-cocked by an out-of-nowhere, roundhouse left. Someone will take everything that came before it and put together in a musical punch you've got no defenses for.
I give you Hiromi Uehara.
"I Got Rhythm"
The 31 year-old studied classical piano in her native Japan as a child, performing with the Czech Philharmonic at age 14, but couldn't be held by the concert repetoire. After a chance encounter with Chick Corea led to her being called onstage to play with him, she left law school to study at Berklee. Uehara hoovered up the jazz lexicon, absorbing stride piano and the Death Star stylings of piano Jedis Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Her musical osmosis even extended to the madcap work of Raymond Scott and other cartoon-music composers.
"Tom and Jerry" Theme
But those are just reference points, part of the witty, fluid virtuosity that makes Uehara much more than Oscar Peterson 3.0. Her current, acoustic/electric trio — made up of fellow Berkee alums Tony Grey (bass) and Martin Valihora (drums) — builds quirky, angular constructions that seem to reference Frank Zappa, and Uehara is quick to cite Bach, Sly and the Family Stone and King Crimson as major influences.
“I don’t want to put a name on my music,” Uehara says. “Other people can put a name on what I do. It’s just the union of what I’ve been listening to and what I’ve been learning. It has some elements of classical music, it has some rock, it has some jazz, but I don’t want to give it a name.”
Uehara's often outlandish stage presence goes with her extraordinary approach to the piano. A mop of wild hair, sometimes brightly dyed, soars like a cumulus cloud over her diminutive frame, and her remarkable passion and energy make for a very physical style at the keyboard. There is nothing held back. In this performance of her composition, "Place to Be," you can see tears streaming down Uehara's face.
"Place to Be"
Uehara, who markets herself as Hiromi, is still largely unknown to U.S. audiences, despite catching ears of hipper jazz afficionados. If talent and personality have anything to do with success in the entertainment business, however, that's bound to change.
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