The great living legend Ahmad Jamal declared that Japanese piano wunderkind Hiromi “has discovered her own genre,” and now three albums and four years leading a supertrio with electric bassist Anthony Jackson and ex-Toto drummer Simon Phillips, I think Jamal could be onto something.
Alive — due out June 17, 2014 on Telarc/Concord — is not overtly different from the group’s first LP Voice (2011) or last year’s Move, but they’re fine-tuning a sonic personality that’s definitely jazz but just as assuredly contemporary and dynamic in a way that no one else is quite doing. By sticking with this path for a while, she’s seeing it through its full development and at the same time, sets herself further apart from her childhood hero, the ever-genre-hopping Chick Corea.
Hiromi, too, loves many musical styles, but prefers to blend them all together into a unified voice together with Jackson and Phillips. With the strong affinity she’s developed with her partners, it seems so easy.
Especially her penchant for turning a pop melody into something deeper. For “Seeker” she begins alone with such a catchy strain, with Jackson and Phillips entering after a bar. Amid a head-nodding strut, Hiromi plays it lithe and light even as she’s throwing off double-fisted asides. “Firefly” boasts of a quiet, melancholy melody performed by Hiromi alone. A comely pop ballad, Hiromi keeps her chops at bay to fully reveal the song’s prettiness.
Even for the “power” pieces such as “Alive,” “Life Goes On” and “Warrior,” Hiromi finds ways to work fetching chorals into adventurous excursions. “Wanderer,” too, is a journey, not a head-solos-head exercise, but also breaks out into jazz swing, and that’s where they reveal even more about themselves: as Hiromi gains momentum, Phillips picks up on her every cue. Following a drum solo that simultaneously segues back into theme, Jackson uncorks a graceful bass solo that no one outside of Steve Swallow can do with that kind of touch.
Nimbleness is a hallmark with this group, and that’s what makes “Dreamer” even better. Phillips introduces an interesting repeating figure that Hiromi builds upon and negotiates capably. After a while she settles down, performing her solo with focus and purpose, one idea always leading into the next one. The gospel feel sets the tone for “Spirit,” so gospel you can almost hear a church organ. Even at half their normal speed, this threesome sounds good.
As Hiromi and her trio get settled into their own take on virtuosic yet listenable contemporary jazz, listeners are advised to strap in. It’s a fun ride.