Known and loved for her energising music, highly expressive performing style, and vivacious fashion sense, award-winning improvisation jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara has graced Australian shores a second time. Hiromi: the Trio Project brings together her compositions and piano work, contrabassist Anthony Jackson (Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Chick Correa), and drummer Simon Phillips (Toto, The Who, Judas Priest).
I had the very good fortune of speaking to her about her art, her touring experiences, her team, and how being an Asian international student in America has influenced her sense of style. Having just flown in from Japan, she was out of her signature flashy look and could almost pass for the music geek next door: but fans who know her love for Frank Zappa would have taken one glance at her Roxy: the Movie shirt and not be deceived.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Can anything be made jazzy?
It’s more about the spirit. I don’t know if the word jazzy is appropriate. I don’t even know if my music is called jazz. For me, music is just music. I never thought about genres. It’s the prospect of improvisation that appeals to me.
Music enters the body through the ear. When you play music, you’re putting sound inside people’s bodies. How does that make you feel?
Music travels through my fingers and ears. But it should really go from heart to heart. What really moves you, what strikes your heart. My emotions, reaching someone else’s emotions.
Are your emotions more gentle or strong?
All kinds of kinds of emotions. Melancholic. Fiery. All human beings have different kinds of moods, different kinds of emotions. They are all equally beautiful, especially if transcending through music. It is interesting how people love listening to sad songs, but nobody wants to experience sad events. When sad events, when everything that happens in life, come through music, everything becomes beautiful. That’s what music can do. Music can transform every emotion you experience into beauty.
Do you do other types of art? Painting, dance?
No. Just piano.
For some people passion is more important. For some it’s discipline. What do you think?
Both are equally important. The passion has to be there. But you have to be disciplined at the same time. But passion does come first for me.
You’re so busy travelling. How do you get time to practice? Do you have a very planned routine or do you do what you feel like doing?
When I’m on the road, I just go with the flow. I just travel to the venue, do a sound check, rehearse, and then perform. On the road, that’s the daily schedule. On off days, I do have the same schedule. I just practice. I wake up, breakfast, play the piano, eat lunch, play the piano, and then eat dinner. I just keep doing that. I love it.
So I’m sure someone cooks for you, right? ‘Cause if you’re in the zone…
Oh I cook. I do cook. Before dinner, I cook. I should include that too. I play the piano, then I cook and eat.
How do you sustain your energy when you tour so much?
After the show, people ask me, aren’t you exhausted from the performance? I’m actually physically exhausted but mentally fulfilled. I’m mentally more energised than before the show. I love performing. I feel the most alive on stage, and that’s my energy source. So I give energy but at the same time I get energy.
You work with a team of talented veteran instrumentalists. Are you the boss? What kind of relationship is it?
(laugh) There is no boss. Just three individual musicians who just love to work together. We’re just happy to be together, playing music, just looking for new adventures everyday.
Is it sometimes hard working with other people who are also creative and passionate?
When we have different ideas, we talk, we find the best option, play music again and again. There are no clashes. We have a good working relationship. I think we just collaborate really well together.
How did you get them to be on the team?
I approached them. It’s my trio. I write the music. I’m the composer, so I was looking for the right sound, the right musicians. I hired myself for piano and I found the right people.
Did they say yes right away?
Yes, they did.
You’ve been incredibly lucky, and talented, of course, and you’ve studied and worked in the best places to do music. Some people aren’t as fortunate. Do you think great music comes from certain places or do you think that even if someone might be poor, or far from America or Tokyo or Paris or London they can still do good music?
I think good music is everywhere. If you’re musically rich in yourself, then you can make music.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened with someone from the audience?
In my concerts, there are people from different generations. Once, I was playing in Europe, and there was a little boy, seven or eight, obviously studying piano. Next to him, there was an old lady with a pearl necklace. Next to her was a long-haired man with an Iron Maiden T-shirt. I think it’s interesting when people who don’t obviously have the same lifestyle happen to be there, enjoying the same music. I find that music can be really borderless. That I really enjoy.
Do you have a favourite city to perform in?
I really enjoy every city I go to. I love everyone and every single place. I don’t have one favourite, especially to perform. For me, playing a show is like treasure hunting. Every venue, every city, is full of treasures for me.
The outfits, the presentation. Is it you that decides or someone else?
Is there a reason you choose that style?
When I was in the Berklee College of Music in Boston I realised that for non-Asian people, Asian people all look the same. So when I had a show in school, once someone asked me, ‘Did you see the show last night? The Japanese girl.’ That was me. People just can’t differentiate Asian people’s faces. So I just wanted to do something iconic, that people can’t remember when I’m onstage. The hair started there. And I have always loved fashion and I’ve always tried on different dresses, so that’s something I enjoy.
Do you still go back to Berklee to perform?
Yes. When I visit Boston to perform, I invite my teachers to come see me.
Your teachers must be proud of you.
They are happy to see me, yes.
Were you the naughty kid?
No, I was older when I went, so I wasn’t naughty.
Hiromi: the Trio Project will perform as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on 9 June, Thursday, 7.30p.m. and at the Sydney City Recital Hall on 11 June, Saturday, 7.30p.m.