Review - Hiromi: The Trio Project / The Bad Plus ft. Joshua Redman, June 24th, 2012 at The Toronto Star Stage

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The technical prowess with which Hiromi Uehara performed Sunday night was astounding. Her opening set confused many patrons who thought she was headlining.

Her compositions, largely taken from her most recent trio album Voice, were characterized by the constant interaction of melody and countermelody. Riff-based vamps in her left hand and melodies in her right were often doubled by bassist Anthony Jackson, giving her compositions a chorale-like quality of two interacting lines.

Jackson navigated the minefield of time signatures and progressions at breakneck speed, making it clear that the trio project has rehearsed this music endlessly. His right hand work between thumb and pick, as well as his effects board had the bass players in the audience drooling.

Drummer Simon Phillips was on a kit of two bass drums, four toms, two floor toms, two snares and an array of cymbals. I can assure you that he was not compensating for anything, as he provided a variety of supportive clave and interesting metric superimpositions.

Hiromi’s animated facial expressions and lack of hesitation to stand up or sway conveyed her enjoyment and total commitment to each musical moment. Momentary feel changes seemed humorous, as she smiled at the audience. Every song seemed to climax in a dense solo section in which her hands essentially drove through the piano. Standard melodies, Brad Mehldau-isms and soulful gospel chops were all quoted as a part of her expansive vocabulary.

In past instances, I have been sceptical of Hiromi’s music for using her virtuosity just for the sake of showmanship, and not for serving the music… except that of the thousands of ideas she played Sunday night, there was not one that I didn’t like.

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The Bad Plus (Ethan Iverson – piano, David King – drums, Reid Anderson – bass) was joined by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman for a set of originals following Hiromi’s performance.

Though there was obviously evidence of study of the jazz tradition among the performers, the musicians showcased an innovative strand of contemporary jazz. References to traditional conventions and styles never occurred without some aspect being altered. Take, for example the arpeggiatic “shout chorus” before the melody retunes on "2P.M." (composed by Iverson, from the album Never Stop).

Solos did not follow the conventional introduction, climax and rest narrative, but rather featured something much closer to free, collective improvisation.

The atypical configuration of the group (a straight line across the stage) presented each player as equal. This feeling was expanded upon by the unusually melodic roles taken on by both Reid Anderson and David King.

Anderson demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the ‘sweet’ resonance spots of the bass by manipulating melodic intervals and double stops in both his accompaniment and solos. King experimented with various children’s toys as well as a tom that was tuned to an unusually high pitch to get unique effects out of his kit.

My favourite piece of the night was Anderson’s ballad, "People Like You" (off the album Never Stop). The accompaniment on the head was extremely sparse, allowing the lyrical and delicate melody to breathe. Guest Joshua Redman’s long tones fit in without disturbing the film-like character of the piece, usually performed only by the trio.

"Silence Is The Question" (from the album These Are The Vistas) was another highlight. The composition features a beautiful rubato melody - and throughout the performance, the players displayed an astute awareness of textural effect. The understanding between performers was so absolute that they were able to manipulate their individual sounds to contribute to a collective use of tension and release, taking the composition to a new level of musicality.

All in all, the performance took listeners on a ride along the road of avant-garde and improvisational music, glancing at elements of the jazz tradition along the way.

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