Melbourne can be a tough crowd to impress. It’s the cultural capital, the arbiter of all things artistic in Australia. We’ve seen it all, we’ve heard it all, or so we like to think. A worldly sneer is our default approach to cultural projects that come through our city, an outlook exacerbated by the weather that gets even more mercurial by the minute.
The smug, self-important veneer faded when pianist Hiromi Uehara, contrabassist Andrew Jackson (Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Chick Corea), and drummer Simon Phillips (Toto, The Who, Judas Priest), came out into the Hamer Hall stage. The crowd of mostly black-clad Melburnians cheered, clapped, and hooted, with uncharacteristic warmth. Clearly, Hiromi had been a hit during her first visit to Australia in 2012. Or, she already had a large and ever-growing following, whose longing to see her live reached crescendo proportions and was finally satisfied this evening.
(Photo via the Melbourne International Jazz Festival)
The concert lasted close to two hours, with no opening act and no intermission. The Melbourne International Jazz Festival artistic director Michael Tortoni gave the introduction. He said that this festival was about an enquiry into what jazz meant, what jazz was, and in what direction jazz was headed.
The trio performed tracks from their latest album “Spark.” The band had been together since 2010, and this was their fourth album together.
Hiromi was decked out in her signature flamboyant garb: large, wild hair, a funky sleeveless dress, and glittering sneakers. She was a svelte, elfin creature on the piano, possessed by the music, sometimes rising to the tip of her toes, then curling back onto the seat. One minute found her crouched tenderly over the keys the next her fingers slammed down so hard it seemed her wrists would shatter from the effort. Throughout the intensity of her performance, though, her face always appeared radiant, ecstatic.
To watch her is to witness what religious ecstasy feels like. It is about being in the grip of a greater power, and not being bothered in the slightest by that fact. It is about knowing that one is merely a conduit for an energy beyond the limits of one’s imagination. It is about recognising that music comes not from the ego, but from Spirit, from a creator who is not the self, but is experienced through the sensations made possible by the existence of selves, your self and I.
The sound moved through a range of intensities, from a furious harmony of instruments shooting out notes in rapid-fire motion, to extended solos from piano, contrabass, and drums. There were sections that had a discordant, jazzy quality, tracks with a smooth, bluesy vibe, and melodies that felt reminiscent of Daft Punk or an anime or video game soundtrack. My favourite was a slow, sentimental piano solo, and the drum solo that concluded with an epic piano transition into a full band track that made the audience go wild.
A standing ovation got Hiromi and her trio to return for a spirited encore that concluded the night on a cheerful note. CDs were available for sale afterwards, and Hiromi came out to give autographs and smile for selfies with fans. The queue had older gentlemen in long black trench coats, British-Asian yuppies with snappy berets, youthful hipsters with messy beards, and families with little children. Truly, a universal treat for jazz fans, midwinter merriment seekers, and even the most jaded of Melburnians.
Check out Peril Magazine’s interview with Hiromi here.