Hiromi Uehara: Alive in the Moment

Hiromi Uehara: Alive in the Moment

By Benjamin Thomas
TDJ News Corps

JUNE 12, 2014
Jazz piano virtuoso Hiromi Uehara is a woman of few words and calm in conversation—a stark and surprising contrast to the feverish energy and pace of her inspired live performances. During my recent chat with Hiromi about her latest album, Alive (Telarc), the 35-year-old Japanese-born improviser and composer touched on topics beyond the realm of jazz, and never failed to surprise me with colourful responses that were peppered with bits of wisdom between the lines. Hiromi: The Trio Project—featuring Hiromi, bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Philips— plays on Tuesday June 24th at 8 p.m. in Koerner Hall. Be sure to check them out!

Toronto Downtown Jazz: How’s this tour going so far?
Hiromi Uehara: It’s been great. Everywhere we go, we try to make things exciting for everyone, and we’ve been having a great time ourselves. Anthony and Simon are both great.

TDJ: How did you first meet Anthony and Simon?
HU: Anthony I met when I was making my debut record, Another Mind, in 2003. I had him on as a special guest, and he was on my second album as well. He only played three tracks, and since then I’ve been wanting to make a whole album with him, but was just waiting for the right moment. Then in 2010 I asked him if he would be interested in being a part of the trio, and he was very happy to do it. I started to write songs for us and, in the process, I started to see a clearer image of how I wanted the drums to sound. Then I thought about Simon and asked Anthony about him because they’ve been working together for over 30 years. After that discussion, I immediately contacted Simon who was happy to be a part of the project as well.

TDJ: It’s amazing to hear the different styles everyone brings to the trio. Last time you were here, the trio played material from your first two albums, Voice and Move. With Alive coming out next week, how would you say your sound has evolved?
HU: Well, the more we play together, it just gets better. Actually, better is not the right word. We just understand each other better, and know each others' styles so well, and always want to surprise each other. In the songwriting process, during the first two albums, it was like I had a backing band, but now it’s the band that’s helping bring the song together from the start. I feel like they are making me write the songs that I want to play with them alone.

TDJ: So do you write together as well?
HU: No, I write my own songs. But by understanding more about each musician’s style, I started to write from different aspects. I want to hear how the song is played by Simon and how it is played by Anthony. It’s kind of like when you’re a screenwriter, and you initially write the part and seek out the actor to fill it. But later on, you may write a role with a certain person in mind. For Voice, I had the script and was looking for an actor. But now I know who’s going to act in [my] play.

TDJ: You’ve said that your new album, Alive, focuses more closely on the live component—hence the title—but also is a play on the concept of life itself. Can you elaborate?
HU: I wanted to write songs about the various emotions you encounter in life. The first track is sort of like waking up, being born and starting to live. Then as you go on, you live, you dream, you wonder, you see, you play. You’re the warrior of your life. Then sometimes you need to let things go. You encounter certain moments where you need to say bye, the end. [With] anything you encounter, nothing is forever. The track “Firefly” is named that because they have short lives but they really shine when they’re alive. The album is trying to carry the spirit of what you encounter in life. The whole thing is a continuous story. It’s also about playing live because we’ve been playing together for so long and I wanted us—even in a studio setting—to bring out the emotions of a live performance.

TDJ: What motivates you to get through this life that you’ve describe so beautifully?
HU: It’s definitely playing a show every night. I love performing. Never get tired of it.

TDJ: I’ve seen you perform many times, and you’re always completely in the zone and utterly focused. What are you thinking about when you’re on stage?
HU: It’s all improvisational so I’m just trying to focus and find the right note to play. It’s like talking to people, it’s something you can’t plan when you’re in a conversation. You go with the flow. It’s so easy to say words that don’t need to be there so I’m just trying to find the words that need to. And the ones I haven’t spoken before.

TDJ: I definitely think you pick all the right words.
HU: Not everyday, but I try!

TDJ: Your music has been influenced by your time with some of the greats like Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal, but what are some of your influences outside of jazz?
HU: Frank Zappa. He’s been a hero of mine for many years, and I grew up listening to him. I really like the way he writes for the band and for himself. But, for influence, I don’t know how or where it comes out. Any artist's style is a combination of all of the influences in their life.

TDJ: If you weren’t playing music, what would you be doing in life?
HU: Eating [laughs]!

TDJ: When I say “jazz,” what’s the first word that comes to mind?
HU: Freedom.

TDJ: You made your first record in your early twenties. What wisdom can you pass on to young musicians—those who want to live to play music?
HU: They need to understand that—no matter the venue, no matter how small the crowd is—just give it your all. When I was studying at Berklee, there would be classroom concerts with 30 people but I always played like it was my first and last show. When you do that everyday, it becomes your treasure. Even with continuous shows, I don’t think about where I’m going tomorrow and what’ll happen next, I just give everything to the people that happen to be there. It’s a miracle that people decide to spend their precious time with me, so I feel a responsibility to deliver and don’t want to take you for granted. I want for the portion of our lives that we spend together to be wonderful.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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