Hiromi – Spark (2016)

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Over the last five or so years, the freakishly good pianist Hiromi Uehara — or just Hiromi — has been fine-tuning her own jazz trio characteristic that sounds so familiar and so singular at once. Since she formed a small band of virtuosos with electric bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips, Hiromi has crafted whiplash-inducing jazz that ignores the melodicism/musicianship continuum by place heavy emphasis on both. Her approach is neither fully committed to electric nor acoustic formats and, in a sense, she also dispenses with trying to fit neatly into either category.

Spark, available April 1, 2016 from Telarc International, is Hiromi’s fourth venture down this road in the last five years, a formula that might get a little tiresome by now if she wasn’t so danged daring and exuberant in how she goes about it.

Hiromi, as usual, seems intent on fending off listener boredom. The first four tracks of Spark alone bristle with enough energy and twists for an entire album. After a lithe piano-only prologue into “Spark,” the trio wastes little time to show what it’s made of. Supple, fluid bass lines underpin impossible rhythm sequences executed flawlessly by Phillips and Hiromi; the inseparable union between harmony and rhythm is a Hiromi hallmark heard on nearly every one in this bundle of all-original songs. Another nine-minute tour-de-force called “In A Trance” is even more energetic, led by a two fisted attack on all eighty-eight keys. Phillips’ drums is a non-stop rolling ball of thunder, culminating in a combustible solo (of which there are plenty) segueing into an Afro-Cuban figure and eventually circling back to original motif. No ground is left uncovered.

Caribbean influences are also present on “Wonderland,” starting with Phillips’ toms at the intro which are tonally correct for the song. Hiromi works the groove hard with fleetness and fluidity. Jackson’s poetic upper register bass figures launch “Take Me Away,” acting as a proxy for a guitar. Hiromi mixes fire with grace, wit and gospel funk, contrasting with a gently flowing main melody.

Some synthesizer intrudes on “What Will Be, Will Be” and its Mardi Gras shuffle, but the main attraction is how Hiromi’s piano closely integrates with her band mates to make rhythm and melody work hand in hand. “Indulgence” finally slows down the pace but still grooves with a head-nodding shuffle, and Hiromi remains in a playful mood. Only when we reach “Wake Up and Dream” near the end does Hiromi completely winds down, undertaking this classical influenced melody with wonderfully flowing arpeggiated chords.

Hiromi has settled into a pattern with Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips with another one-word album (following Voice, Move and Alive) but in her case ‘settling’ doesn’t equate to ‘mediocre’. The one word that comes to mind when taking in Spark is ‘stimulating.’

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