It is easy to tell that Hiromi Uehara is a hypersensitive pianist, aware of everything around her as she performs. During one concert, a cell phone rang, and she quickly played a chord based on the ring tone to smooth over the interruption — and lessen the embarrassment for the offender. What sparks her passionate musical style, however, is something only she can sense.
“I definitely see a lot of fiery red, that’s for sure,” the 28-year-old, known for her fast-paced, nearly frantic playing, says with a laugh. “It’s just my personality. When I’m really going for it, then I see that type of color.”
Contrary to the way she plays, Uehara away from the keyboard seems reserved, relaxed and cheerful. She sits up straight in a green dress on a red sofa in a waiting room at the Yamaha Music Foundation in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, where she started piano lessons at age 6.
She explains that her first teacher at Yamaha taught her music with colors.
“She was a very unique teacher. She always colored my whole score with pencils. Instead of using musical jargon such as fortepiano, crescendo, decrescendo, she would just color the score — so that when I saw red, it made me feel like I needed to play with passion. And she wrote some word like ‘melancholic’ and painted it blue and I had to play it blue. And that was really good for, I think, kids, because your brain cannot really process what “forte” is when you are like 6 or 7, but you can see — you can understand the color, you can see visuals more than trying to understand something by brain. So, I could really feel the music with my emotions.”
That method affects her performing to this day, but it does not carry over much when she composes.
“Well, I don’t color (the score) much,” she says. “But I always see colors when I play.”
Uehara first learned classical piano, but when she was 8 the same teacher introduced her to jazz. Though her albums span a diverse range of genres — from jazz, progressive jazz and fusion to classical, electronic music and rock — she does not care for labels.
“I don’t really name what I am, myself,” she says. “(Other) people can label me. . . . If they want to call me a jazz musician, then it’s OK; if they want me to be something else, that’s fine . . . I want to be music — nothing else.”
In the same way, Uehara cannot simply be classified as a Japanese musician. After studying at Yamaha, the Hamamatsu-born musician took up a four-year full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston and released four acclaimed albums, becoming a world-renowned musical talent. This year, she has performed at venues around the world as disparate as the Fuji Rock Festival and the original Blue Note jazz club in New York.
Uehara visits Blue Note Tokyo in September to play with legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea.
“I just love his musicality,” Uehara says.
The pair first played together when Uehara was 17, but this chance to duet with Corea excites her even more because “it’s the first time to play three nights with him.”
Uehara does not know what they will play or how they will sound because, for her, it is “always up to a musical god.”
“I want to capture all notes, eat his notes, taste them, and see what I can create, and then let him taste them and see what he thinks,” she says.
Despite being busy with touring, Uehara says she tries to compose every day.
“I can’t create something every single day, but I try to,” she says. “It’s like keeping a diary. I always try to write something which caught my mind.”
Uehara composes all the songs for her albums. Her first album, “Another Mind,” featured saxophone and guitar along with drums and bass. The album was released in 2003 on U.S. label Telarc. “Another Mind” found its way to Japan, where it was named jazz album of the year in 2004 by the Recording Industry Association of Japan, and Uehara’s popularity began to grow in her homeland.
“I was surprised because jazz music was not that big (in Japan),” she says. “It’s obviously not mainstream music. My music doesn’t involve vocals, so I was so surprised by the fact that a lot of my fans in Japan actually never really listened to any instrumental music, even.
“They never listened to jazz before and . . . they just happened to see one TV show I was on and they saw me play, and I guess they felt a connection. I was so happy that music can connect people. It doesn’t matter which genre it is — it doesn’t matter if it’s instrumental music or vocal music.”
Uehara’s next two albums, “Brain” and “Spiral,” were for a trio of piano, drums, and bass. “Time Control,” her latest album, released earlier this year, is based around a quartet: Hiromi’s Sonicbloom. It is the project she is working on with progressive jazz-rock guitarist David Fiuczynski, as well as bassist Tony Grey and drummer Martin Valihora, both of whom also studied at Berklee.
As she tours the world with Hiromi’s Sonicbloom, Uehara is not sure if she will continue composing music for the quartet on her next album.
“Well, I’m thinking about it right now,” she admits. “I haven’t decided exactly, yet.
“I just always want to take a risk. That’s always my main goal for my career. I don’t want to play a safe game. I always want to do something very risky and try to do what is almost like the hardest thing to do.
“So, the reason I started the quartet was because the trio came to the point where it had really matured and had a really great triangle, a very stable triangle,” she says as she forms the shape of a triangle with her hands. “I always think, when it comes to the very stable moment, then that’s the time to break it.”
This need to take risks in her music, to keep excited, is only part of what fuels Uehara’s passion. Her accomplishments, and her technical and composing talents, are even more impressive when considering how men dominate the world of jazz.
“You know, it’s not easy. I have a reason to fight,” she says as a red hue begins to color her face. “To really fight, you need to have love and passion. There’s a huge wall — not made by me — and I have to fight it every day, because I’m Asian, I’m female and an instrumentalist.”