What do you get when you cross the discriminating refinement of a piano jazz trio with the ferocious impact of a power trio? You get Hiromi’s latest, dangerous little combo.
The virtuosic piano sensation from Japan had teamed up with Anthony Jackson (contrabass guitar) and Toto’s longtime drummer Simon Phillips to make her last album Voices (2011) and in the ensuing tour, saw more to exploit from this configuration. Thusly, she got right down to business and composed songs that aimed directly at the limitless abilities of her drummer and bassist, not just her. The product of this is set to roll out in the States next week (it was released on Europe last fall) and Move, as it’s called, is a finely crafted album of purpose and mind-blowing musicianship.
The purpose comes not only in showcasing Jackson and Phillips optimally, but there’s also the purpose of a narrative, which gave an overall unity to Voices, too. Whereas that earlier record was guided by the idea of “expressing a range of human emotions without the aid of a single lyric,” Move also seeks to emulate people’s emotions, but within the context of a snapshot from wakeup to work to play and then to bedtime. “The album is like a soundtrack for a day,” she explains.
You needn’t know the context to appreciate the record — it works with and without one — because what you will sense without any explanation is her “three dimensional sound,” where each of the three performers are harmonic forces of their own, and Hiromi has solved the puzzle of how to put them together. “Move,” the opening track, meant to emulate the sounding of an alarm clock, is a real wake up call. It starts with Hiromi’s tense pulse that quickly gets layered and contests with competing rhythmic and harmonic patterns which somehow interlocks with precision. Hiromi pulls out the stops in not only her rapid-fire barrage of notes, but also in the choice opportunities she presents to Phillips (who, naturally, is thriving on them). This song is illustrative of why world-class drummers love playing with this world-class pianist.
Hiromi doesn’t go balls-to-the-wall from beginning to end on every song; mostly she makes room for melodic development and providing a real flow to the song. “Brand New Day,” “Rainmaker” and “In Between” are songs that are about traversing through carefully paced modulations. Likewise, “Endeavor” is a song that moves between funk and light swing with agility and succeeds because both parts feel connected to each other. Though I’m not a fan of the gaudy sounding synthesizer Hiromi uses to accent the funk parts, the song remains attractive because of the crisp, intense way she plays the acoustic piano. Well, that, and the fact that she engages in some real potent call and response with Phillips.
These super dynamic harmonies provide a good reason why an experienced bassist like Jackson is needed, as he can easily establish both the swing and the groove within the same, myriad melody as he does on these tracks. His funky little bass line kicks off the footloose “Margarita!”, for which he and Phillips seem to vacillate between an impossible, tense syncopation and a festive little samba beat. And what sounds like a guitar solo is actually Jackson playing his contrabass just like one.
Another device Hiromi uses to set the flow on this record is the trusty ol’ suite. The “Suite Escapism” sequence of three songs is set in the middle of the album and draws a sharp distinction between “Reality,” which is a severely busy, rapid jazz walk where the spaces between notes nearly don’t exist, and the laid back “Fantasy,” where Jackson plays a lyrical bass like a guitar and Hiromi plays a relaxed gospel style. As mentioned earlier, “In Between” is a mixture of moods. If you listen closely enough to all three, there’s a chord progression, a hidden theme, that appears in all three.
“11:49 PM” closes out the set with a reflective piece, but not reflective as in “slow;” it moves a bit like a symphony. Settling into a midtempo groove, Hiromi riffs nimbly and intensely over a two chord figure, and Phillips again puts in a heroic effort.
Repeating the same idea, of combining with an electric bassist and drums only, doesn’t in this case mean Hiromi is anywhere near running out of ideas, she instead found a good idea worth exploring further. By splitting the difference between a post-bop trio and a muscular fusion trio, she found a spot that’s ideally suited for not just her talents, but also those of her band. And Move goes a long way toward her further establishing her own identity.
Feature photo: Sakiko Nomura