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Interview by ARTURO MORA

Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara and her band Sonicbloom have just recorded Beyond Standard, a look at some old jazz standards from her particular musical viewpoint. Small in size, huge in artistic energy, she performed live in Madrid on July 3rd 2008. That same afternoon Arturo Mora interviewed her in the hall of her hotel.

Hiromi and Arturo Mora

ARTURO MORA: First of all, what would you like to tell us about your new record, Beyond Standard?

HIROMI: I don’t know [laughs]. It’s a very open question. I wanted to make an album with songs I didn’t write, and I chose the songs I’d been playing for more than ten years and I’ve tried to make them sound as if they were my own.

ARTURO MORA: Why did you choose your Sonicbloom project instead of your piano trio to make that standards record?

HIROMI: Because when I was touring with this band I found a lot of potential, I wanted to expand my band. You know, my band is very edgy. I’m always looking for some risk to take in music, always looking for the biggest challenge, and I just couldn’t imagine us playing standards, because this is a very non-standard band, so I thought it would be very interesting.

ARTURO MORA: How did you meet [guitarist] David “Fuze” Fiuczynski?

HIROMI: I met him in Boston, I was a big fan of Fuze and his band, the Screaming Headless Torsos. Even before I came to the States it was one of the bigger goals for me, just to meet him in person. I invited him to play in my first record as a special guest, and then I felt something very special and I thought: “yeah, someday I wanna do a full album with him.”

ARTURO MORA: Does the presence of Fuze inspire you when writing or arranging?

HIROMI: Definitely, like in the piece “Caravan”, I don’t think I could do it without him. As a fan I always wanted to listen to him play that song, thinking that Fuze is playing the melody, so OK, what can I do about it?

ARTURO MORA: Have you ever thought in adding some kind of wind instrument to your band, like a saxophone?

HIROMI: Yeah, I went to Berklee and I studied arranging and composition, and I studied the instruments I don’t play, so...

ARTURO MORA: What could you tell us about the rhythm section playing with you tonight?

HIROMI: The drummer is Jordan Perlson, we went to school together, a brilliant drummer, amazing touch, amazing technique. He went to Berklee with me, as Tony Grey, the bass player.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Are you still playing with Martin [Valihora, the drummer on the album]?

HIROMI: Yes, he’s now doing something in his own country [Slovakia]. Sometimes when they have their own thing we switch musicians. It’s fun, I really enjoy it. The first time is always hard. Sometimes I play with this guitar player John Shannon, a brilliant guitar player, he’s amazing. Everybody has different aspects and music changes and cooks itself and it’s very interesting. When I say something every different musician talks to me in a different way, and makes me think in another idea, so it’s always interesting.

ARTURO MORA: Browsing through your website I’ve seen your photoblog. It looks like you’ve been doing a bit of tourism around Madrid these days...

HIROMI: Yes, I did! I really wanted to go to Aranjuez. I did the record with Chick [Corea], it hasn’t come out yet, it came in Japan. I made the record last September. We played “Spain” together, and we played “Concierto de Aranjuez”, and I wanted to see where this music came from, it’s good to know its origin.

ARTURO MORA: The pics and text you put in that photoblog, is that some kind of therapy to stay out of the music world for a while?

HIROMI: It’s just to communicate with my fans, I specially enjoy meeting Japanese people now. I started it because I realized that Japan is very far East, very far from Europe, very far from the States, and I can say many things, mainly about food [laughs], I want to show people what can you get in other places. It’s fun, you know.

ARTURO MORA: What about the audiences? What could you tell us about the differences among European, American and Japanese audiences?

HIROMI: Well, it really depends on the context the concert is held. Sometimes when it’s in a concert hall or a jazz club it’s different, outdoors or indoors is different, Barcelona and Madrid is different, and Tokyo and Osaka is different, Osaka is more like Barcelona and Tokyo is more like Madrid. The important thing is when the audience scream and are part of the music and create energy. But I enjoy the quiet audiences as well, as long as there is a focus.

ARTURO MORA: You just mentioned the word “energy”, which looks like a key word in your music, you’ve mentioned it many times, and it’s a very important concept when you perform. How do you focus that energy on the piano?

HIROMI: Well, for me the piano’s just a tool. The reason I’m playing music is that I love people, I love making people happy. And I know I can make people happy through the piano. I was in Taiwan and I spoke no word of Chinese and I couldn’t understand anything that the M.C. was talking about. I went to the stage, I didn’t know anybody in the audience, of course, they didn’t speak my language, but as soon as I played the piano we were united, and I felt like at home. The power of music is amazing.

ARTURO MORA: Do you do some sports or exercises to keep the physical energy going?

HIROMI: I do yoga. It’s mainly for my fatigue because of all the travel and performance. It’s not only playing live, but carrying my keyboard on my bag, and my huge suitcase [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Being very young you’ve achieved a big success. What do think expect from your career in the long term?

HIROMI: Well, I have so many things that I want to do in music. Just playing this kind of music or this other kind of music. I hope just to keep playing music no matter what. To me keeping doing something that you love is beauty, keeping the effort to be better and to see the landscapes you had never seen before. I want to see more, and the more you get the more you want, so it’s a neverending story [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Which living musicians would you like to play with?

HIROMI: That’s hard, there’s far too many... [she doubts]. The people I want to meet in person and the people I want to play with are very different. Sometimes you love the musicians but you just can’t hear you playing with them. The person I really wanted to play with is dead, he’s Frank Zappa. I can really hear the possibility of me playing with him. But he’s not here, so in my next life, or maybe in Heaven... I’m waiting for it [laughs]. About living musicians, it’s hard, because you don’t know until you play with that person. When I get a call I go there, play and it happens or not, and then you decide from there.

ARTURO MORA: What music are you listening to at the moment?

HIROMI: I don’t know why, but these are Red Hot Chili Peppers’ days. I was also listening to Rachmaninoff. In the morning I was listening to Errol Garner.

ARTURO MORA: That’s a very wide array of styles.

HIROMI: It is wide, but it all inspires me, it’s music that fits my mood at the moment. I think that sometimes it’s even dangerous that we have so much knowledge about the music, ‘cause you know that Errol Garner is a jazz pianist, you know which era he was existing in, but maybe my friend from the high school has no idea about it and she just goes: “It’s cool, is he alive?”, and that’s the impression we should always have. I’ve just gone to the Reina Sofía Museum today, and I love to see painting, but I don’t really know much about it, and when I feel it I love it, no matter it is famous or not famous. If I like something I get to know more about that person.

ARTURO MORA: So I guess it would be really hard for you to describe your own music.

HIROMI: I guess I’m doing music because I can’t describe it into words, maybe people like you can describe it because you’re a professional at it, otherwise I would be a writer [laughs].

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Do you usually listen to progressive rock?

HIROMI: Yes, I’m a big fan of King Crimson and Gentle Giant. I didn’t know about Gentle Giant until last year, and somebody came and told me: “you have to listen to Gentle Giant, you’ll love it!”.

SERGIO CABANILLAS: Maybe your music could be defined as “progressive jazz” [laughs], because in all of your songs there’s a lot of different movements, like in a Yes tune. That’s why I was wondering if you usually listen to that kind of music.

HIROMI: Yeah. You know, when I was in London Bill Bruford came to my show, he said he was a friend of David Fiuczynski’s, and I went: “Oh, my God, Bill Bruford’s here!” [laughs]. I really love the music I can say goes crazy, to me it’s like the best compliment, you know, when somebody listens to my music and says: “it’s crazy”. Yeah, that’s it, I love that! [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Which are your upcoming projects?

HIROMI: We’ll continue to tour a little while, there are a lot of festivals coming. I’m writing for orchestra. I’m very fascinated about Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and all these people. Why don’t classical pianists play their own pieces these days? If I really love Rachmaninoff, would I really play his tunes? No, because he played his own tunes, so maybe I could write something to show him my respect.

ARTURO MORA: You’ve been working on that for some time, haven’t you?

HIROMI: I’ve been trying to write for orchestra for five years and I’m still working on it. I have small bits but I’m not really satisfied with it, so I’ll just keep writing until I feel it can go on the stage.

Text © 2008
Photos © 2008 Sergio Cabanillas