Music

Hiromi Uehara drops the band and steps out alone

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Hiromi Uehara rarely records by herself. The pianist has spent nearly two decades working with bands to create a string of whirlwind albums, and also boasts an eclectic list of collaborators, such as Chick Corea, Akiko Yano and Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

Every 10 years, though, she steps away from all that for a time to go it alone. Uehara started this tradition in 2009 when she was on the verge of 30, drawing from her travels during the 2000s for her first solo album, “Place to Be.” A decade later and now 40 years old, she has once again gone solo for her latest album, “Spectrum.”

“As a pianist, making a solo album is really like, kind of being naked,” Uehara says. “There is nowhere to hide. There is no other instrument to play with in order to cover the sound. It’s really challenging, but at the same time, it’s the best way to fully enjoy this instrument.”

The joy Uehara extracts from the piano — whether by herself or with others — has helped make her one of Japan’s most accomplished musicians of the 21st century. While often pegged as a jazz pianist and typically using that genre as a foundation, her music wrangles all kinds of styles together to create songs unafraid of exploring electronic music, prog rock or ragtime among many more genres. Her music displays technical virtuosity, but is delivered in a playful way.

This same energy flows through “Spectrum,” released in Japan in September and internationally, under the name Hiromi, in early October.

“It’s like having a conversation with myself,” Uehara says about the process of working alone. “I can be really free, if there is nobody there to restrain me. I can go anywhere that I want in improvisation.”

Indeed, the songs on her second solo collection play out like stream of consciousness, softer passages pivoting to madcap dashes to something else entirely.

Uehara themed “Spectrum” around colors and how they influence her music. Her first piano teacher taught her to understand the instrument via colors, and this proved a helpful metaphor for an artist who often seems hesitant to talk to deeply about the inner workings of her songs (“It’s hard to describe music in words. Honestly, that part is really difficult. That’s why I play music, you know?” she says with a laugh). Song titles draw from a range of colorful themes, such as the snowstorm-inspired fragility of “Whiteout” to the jaunty “Yellow Wurlitzer Blues.”

The release also underlines how Uehara looks back on her past. “Spectrum” aims to reflect on her 30s, which proved to be a rich period. She released four albums with Hiromi Uehara’s Trio Project, featuring bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips. The most recent, 2016’s “Spark,” topped the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. She has played shows from Cape Town to the mountains of Colorado, where she recalls having to use an oxygen tank due to the altitude. Uehara has come to represent Japanese jazz piano in this century, with her influence even trickling down to the country’s electronic music scene.

Yet she’s not interested in revisiting her past on “Spectrum,” but rather zeroing in on the musical lessons she has learned in that time.

“I learned so much playing with (Jackson and Phillips). In the creative process, it was learning about how to improvise, how to push yourself,” she says of her time with the Trio Project, noting that this spirit appears all over her latest release. “Working with them was really nutritious.”

“Making a solo piano album, the biggest difference is that it’s only piano and it’s only me. So, I have to be a drummer, I have to be a bass player, I have to be like a multi-instrumentalist, only using the piano,” Uehara says. She points to the opening track, “Kaleidoscope,” as a good example of this, as she aimed to treat each of her fingers like a different part of an orchestra.

“Spectrum” features two covers, with Uehara taking on The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actually, the latter is a number of covers in one, as the 22-minute-plus epic also detours into John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.”

“I started playing (“Blackbird” and “Rhapsody in Blue”) at a very early age, and they have been some of my favorites for many years,” Uehara says. “I never really played them at a concert or for an album, but I’ve been playing them again and again over many years.” The color theme gave her a reason to put these versions out into the world, and, in the case of “Rhapsody in Various Shades of Blue,” as the cover of Gershwin’s piece has been dubbed, it showed her the potential found in the piano.

She also nods to another kindred spirit on the track “MR. C.C.”

“When I was at the Berklee College of Music (in Boston), I improvised over one of Charlie Chaplin’s films,” Uehara says. “His action and motions and facial expressions … it fits my improvisation. I felt something in common. At the same time, he’s always in black and white films, but he creates so much color through his performances.”

Homages to Chaplin and others on “Spectrum” serve as celebrations of Uehara’s musical history and development, which seems to interest the pianist more than any personal glances back on her 30s. When asked if she is someone who often looks back, she says, “Actually, not really.” She says her proudest accomplishment from the past decade is having traveled the world and performed for fans.

“That’s too good to be true,” she says. “I can share the music that I love the most with people, and it’s just priceless for me.”

Later this year, Uehara will tour Europe and North America behind “Spectrum,” and she says she has a lot of projects in the works, though she can’t share the specifics just yet. These will involve collaborations, though, meaning fans will probably have to wait another 10 years to hear Uehara’s next solo effort. Odds are good she’ll still have the same passion for the once-every-decade tradition, though.

“Honestly, playing piano so much over the course of three days of recording really made me realize again how much I love the piano, how much I love this instrument. I never get tired of it,” she says. “The more I play, the more things I find to learn. It’s a never-ending adventure.”

For more information about Hiromi Uehara, visit www.hiromiuehara.com.

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