TO LABEL HIROMI A PRODIGY is a massive understatement. She is a piano-playing phenomenon, a talent tsunami, a once-in-a-generation artist that reminds music lovers how life-affirming this art form can be when delivered with passion, fire and confidence.
Japanese born, Hiromi has combined her skills in the United States with those of English drumming legend Simon Phillips (The Who, Nazareth, Jeff Beck, Toto) and bass-playing giant Anthony Jackson (Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Al Di Meola) to form The Trio Project. This wonderful constellation has played many shows worldwide over the last several years and recorded several albums, the most recent of which is entitled Spark, released on Telarc/Concord. In addition to albums of her own, Hiromi has also found the time to record and perform with other giants of jazz such as Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea. Pigeonholing The Trio Project has been made purposely difficult with its integration of practically every genre of music imaginable, from jazz and classical to rock and gospel to Latin and African rhythms. To make things a little easier for those interested in exploring Hiromi’s music and to give a general idea as to what their ears will be enjoying, the term jazz fusion sums things up pretty nicely.
Red Hot Rock Magazine caught up with Hiromi shortly after the mind-blowing experience of bearing witness to one of her brilliant performances.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hey, Hiromi! How are you doing?
HIROMI: Hi. How are you?
RHRM: Good. Thank you. It was so nice meeting you in South Florida and your show was simply magnificent. We enjoyed it so much.
HIROMI: Thank you.
RHRM: You are very welcome. Offstage, you seem like such a shy, sweet, humble, unassuming person. But when you get behind the piano, it really seems to take you away. At times, you are a composed classical pianist. Then you suddenly transform into a rock monster. You really seem to enjoy yourself during the performance.
HIROMI: Ha ha ha. Yes, I do. I really feel alive when I perform.
RHRM: When we saw you perform last week, you broke two piano strings, one at rehearsal and one during the show. It’s not often that one sees that at a show.
HIROMI: Actually, I broke a second one during the show. I didn’t want to say it because it wasn’t affecting the other strings. Ha ha. When I break a string and the broken part is touching the next string, then I have to call somebody to cut it off. But the one that broke later in that show wasn’t touching the string next to it. So I didn’t say anything. Ha ha. Yeah. I broke two strings during the show and one during sound check.
RHRM: Ha ha. Three piano strings in one day. Quite an accomplishment.
HIROMI: Yeah. I mean, it happens sometimes when I play an old piano, which is just ready for the new strings to be installed. It happens, but never three at a time. Ha ha. So, I was like, wow, you know. Ha ha.
RHRM: Just watching you perform, it is obvious how powerful both your hands are. But you also play so gently, with the slightest touch. You play aggressively with your entire hands, but I also love your technique when you play quickly with just the tips of your fingers. It’s just beautiful.
HIROMI: Hmm, mm. Yeah. I mean, I love dynamics in music, you know. The dynamic range is so important. We can play loud. But we can play as soft as we want. And I think it’s just the beauty of music.
RHRM: But when you were learning to play piano, was it more difficult learning to play fast and soft than fast and aggressive?
HIROMI: Oh, yeah! Playing pianissimo, like really, really soft actually requires much more power, energy, I mean physically, to play. It’s very interesting. Playing soft is much more physically demanding, ha ha, than playing loud, actually.
RHRM: Besides the intensity in your playing, you have so many interesting stylistic flourishes with the way you approach the piano, a lot of which I am guessing are not conventional. When you were taking lessons or were in school, did you have teachers along the way who tried to discourage you from playing the way you wished?
HIROMI: I studied with one teacher from six years old to eighteen years old. I mean, I studied piano with her. And she was always… I mean, she was a classical piano teacher, but she was a big music fan of all genres. So she was the one who introduced me to jazz. And, you know, I started listening to jazz when I was eight. She was a very interesting teacher. Instead of saying, let’s say, play loud or play soft, she would take out her color pencil and just color all my sheet music with red or blue so that I could see it visually instead of telling me with all of these specialized words in music like fortissimo and espressivo. She never really used those words. She only colored my sheet music. For a little kid, I think it was easier to understand, you know, play with passion, play romantic. She was just showing me all these colors. She was a very unique teacher. She encouraged me to compose. She encouraged me to improvise. And sometimes I started to play something that was not written on the sheet music. And she never actually objected. That was great for me.
RHRM: But then what happened when you moved to the States and started school at the Berklee College of Music? Did any of the professors there try to get you to stop what you were doing?
HIROMI: Well, at Berklee I was studying composition and arranging. So I was studying more about the instruments that I don’t play because I wanted to write for an orchestra, I wanted to write for a big band. I was more into arranging. I wasn’t really studying performance there. I was playing, of course, but that was more on my own.
RHRM: Your current trio with Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips on drums, both with whom you have recorded several albums now, is so pleasantly multicultural as to race, gender and nationality. You are, of course, a Japanese woman, Anthony is a black man from New York and Simon is a white, English guy. How did you connect with these two living legends to form a unit with such great musical and personal chemistry?
HIROMI: I had Anthony as a special guest on my debut album in 2003 and also on my second album in 2004. He played a couple of songs on my debut album and second album. And from that moment, I always knew that I wanted to record an entire album with him some day. I was just going through a bunch of different projects and, in 2010, I just felt that the right time had come. I had been talking to Anthony in New York City and at jazz festivals. He was playing with different people and I was playing with my band. Every time we met, we always talked about it, that we should play together. And he was always asking when are we playing together. In 2010, it just felt like the right time had come. So I called him and said that I’m just thinking about doing a new project and I was wondering if you would be a part of it. He was so excited. And he asked me, “So who are you thinking about for a drummer?” I said, “I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know yet because I haven’t really written the music yet and, you know, I’m gonna think about it after I started writing a couple of songs and I know what kind of sound that I’m looking for for drums.” So, I started writing. And the more I wrote, the clearer the image of the drum sound got. And I thought about Simon. I, of course, have seen him playing many times, but I never met him in person. I saw him playing live at the Tokyo Jazz Festival when he came there, I think it was 2004, with Toto. I was playing the festival, so I saw him there. But I never really talked to him. I did say a quick hello when I met him at the festival, but I didn’t get to really talk to him. But I knew how he plays. And I was just checking out other videos that he plays in different settings. Just the diversity of his playing and the sound of his kit were perfect for what I was kind of imagining back then. So then I asked him in 2010… I was touring… But before that, first of all, I asked Anthony what he thinks about it and he said, “Wow. It’s a great idea.” He and Simon have been touring on and off and also they worked together for Al Di Meola’s project. So they know each other well and he said that it was a great idea, “I think you should call him.” Then, I was on the road with Stanley Clarke back then. He invited me to play on his record in 200….9? I don’t know which year… We did two records together. One was a trio record with Lenny White and the other record used a little deeper balance with different instruments. And so I was on the road with him. And he played with Simon so many times. And I own the album of him with Jeff Beck and Simon. I asked him, “So, I’m thinking about forming a trio. I asked Anthony and I’m thinking about Simon. How is he like? Do you think he would even consider it?” And he said, “You should call him! That’s an amazing idea.” He encouraged me. So I said, OK. The two greatest bass players in the world, you know, encouraging me to call him. Why not? Ha ha ha. So I had my manager call him. And it was such a coincidence. My manager wanted to actually send all of my albums so he can listen to them to see what he feels like. So, ha ha, my manager calls Simon and says, “Do you know Hiromi? She plays piano.” And she was trying to explain. “Wow! I was just watching her YouTube video.” That was crazy. Somebody sent him a video of me and Chick Corea playing a duet together. And he just happened to be watching it on the day that she called or the day before. So, he said, “Yes! I know Hiromi. I was just watching her video.” And, ha ha, she said, “She wants you to play drums for her new trio. Are you interested?” And he said, “I’d love to. But do you know what kind of drum kit I play?” Ha ha. That’s what he said. It was so funny. Because he never actually played with an acoustic piano in his life as a project. He always played with keyboards. He played with a guitar player. But never a real, acoustic piano. And, you know, just thinking about how gigantic his drum kit is, he just never thought it would work out. He never tried. And he said, “Does she want me to play, like, a different kit? What is her idea?” “No, she wants you to play your kit.” Ha ha. And I think he was very surprised. But then we got in touch and I talked and I said, “I want you to play the exact kit that you are playing for every project.” He was surprised. He didn’t think it would work out. But I knew it would work out because his dynamics are amazing. And he got even better the more we played together. I think now, we really can make the dynamics from, like, super soft to super loud. And the velocity is so important. So, I knew from before, but he was a little surprised that I wanted him to use that kit. So anyway, that’s how we formed the trio. In 2010, we got together in New York. We did a couple of rehearsals. And he came to see my show in New York. It all started there. Now we played… I think Simon’s been counting how many shows we’ve played together. He said it’s like two hundred seventy something. So, ha ha, we’ve been playing quite a lot in the past six years, I think.
RHRM: Your spectacular new album, Spark, has just been released. Before I mention specific compositions, I need to say that your ego is apparently very well in check. Both in a live setting and on your records, you allow not only yourself to shine, but the other musicians as well. I mean, already on the first couple of tracks of the new album, the title track and “In A Trance”, Simon is soloing away. Great stuff!
HIROMI: Yes. It’s so important. Any great band, in any genre, when they are onstage, a good band, a great band, always allows each other to shine. That’s how it should be. And I really feel that the better teamwork we get, you know, we shine even more. So I think the latest album is really representing the great teamwork that we established in the past five years.
RHRM: How much within the songs when you perform them live is improvisation or is almost all of it worked out beforehand? You seem to exchange glances sometimes with the other guys as if to say, “That was cool, but surprising.”
HIROMI: We always want to surprise each other. Ha ha ha. I mean, it’s like a musical adventure every night. A lot of the music is improvised. I mean, each one of us has solo sections and we trade off and we try to just do something that we haven’t done yet. We try to find a new aspect, a new landscape, in music that we haven’t even discovered yet. And that’s the beauty of improvisation. Because, you know, you don’t know what you are getting into every day. The audience doesn’t know, but we don’t know either. Ha ha ha.
RHRM: The title track of Spark is simply magnificent. It brings together all I love about the best in progressive rock, jazz fusion, classical music and Latin music. It’s just brilliant.
HIROMI: Thank you. I was so happy when I came up with that riff in the beginning. I was like, “This is it. This should be the title track of the next album.” I knew it straight away when I wrote that four-bar riff in “Spark”.
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