Live Jazz: Hiromi in a Jazz Bakery Moveable Feast at the Japan America Theatre

By Michael Katz

There is a particular thrill in hearing a virtuoso performer for the first time, in that moment when a musician first touches her instrument and you realize she speaks with complete authority, that she can almost will it to places it hasn’t been taken before. Such was the feeling when Hiromi sat in front of the Yamaha grand at the acoustically perfect Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo last night, as part of the Jazz Bakery’s continuing Moveable Feast series.

Clad in a sleeveless black and white dress over a dark body suit and sneakers, she began what would turn out to be a ninety minute solo performance with a breezy, bouncy blues line, which metamorphosed into a bravura version of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Punctuating the melodic line with trademark rolling arpeggios, her right hand leading into flight-of-the-bumble-bee type riffs, occasionally rising from the piano bench to curl over the keyboard, Hiromi brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation, and this was only the opening number.

Photo courtesy of Joke Schot

The remainder of the concert featured Hiromi’s original compositions, most of them from her new solo release, Place To Be.  She twice paired compositions, juxtaposing more gentle, elegiac melodies against harder swinging boogie and blues based lines. The first pairing was “Sicilian Blue,” an elegant theme which picked up with soft arpeggios and drifted into an optimistic line  with a bright sensibility — you almost expected to see daisies sprout from the stage. It ended with a subtle nod to “Singin’ In The Rain” and from there Hiromi moved to “BQE,” her shorthand for Brooklyn Queens Expressway. She displayed a more aggressive style here,  her lithe arms and long fingers seemed wired to the instrument, displaying breathtaking runs and swinging hard the entire time.

Born in Japan, trained with a music education that included the Berklee School of Music in Boston, with jazz influences from Chick Corea and Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi seems at times to have absorbed the entire history of jazz and popular music, spinning off musical quotes at just the right moments, without seeming derivative. Her second pairing began with “Cape Cod Chips,” a swinging reflection on her time in Boston. She literally made use of the whole piano, reaching inside to thrum on the wires, using the keys as mallets, then bouncing along in a stride-like boogie, recalling Fats Waller one moment, then interjecting Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.” While the audience caught its breath, she seamlessly moved to the second half of the pairing, a tribute to her family in Japan entitled “Green Tea Farm.” It was soft and lyrical, the phrasing lovely, and she even sprinkled in a quote from “Sukiyaki.”

She introduced the next number as inspired by a painting, entitled “Old Castle By The River In The Middle of The Forest.”  Bright and at ease with the audience, Hiromi had the charm to pull off a title like that.  The composition ebbed and flowed, changing tones effortlessly. She has classical chops —  her fingers and hands seemed to take on lives of their own.  And it felt sometimes as if we were watching something out of the Lord Of The Rings, yet grounded in the tradition of jazz. She again reached into the frame of the piano for “Pachelbel’s Canon,” placing a restraint on the strings which resulted in a harpsichord-type sound which gave the aura of a Japanese Tea Garden, and morphed into a swinging, classically tinged riff. The composition seemed less a tune than a movement which found its space in the whole of the performance.

“Choux a la Crème,” French for cream puff, was described in dead pan hilarity by Hiromi as her ode to the French pastry, her feelings summarized by the phrase, “Look for it, have it, miss it.” Her style moved from playful to frentic, full of breakneck dances across the keyboard – her side-armed elbow swats might have seemed theatrical were she not so immersed in the music.

Another standing ovation followed from an audience that was multi-ethnic and multi-generational,  a reminder of the continuing vitality of the music.  This young woman, in the prime of her performing life, is not to be missed.

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