Hiromi and the hypercube

Friday, 26 June 2009 — 5:39pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Here is a rough approximation of what I saw at the Calgary Jazz Festival on Wednesday.

That was the ever-theatrical Hiromi Uehara playing the prototypical Gershwin bop standard, “I Got Rhythm”—and boy, does she ever—which she introduced in Calgary as a tribute to her “superhero” (and every other pianist’s), Oscar Peterson.

This is the odd thing about attending jazz concerts in the age of YouTube: you can go home and compare notes with the performer’s previous appearances. In a genre so reliant on improvisation, one of the most tantalizing mysteries in a concert setting is to sort out the spontaneous invention from the premeditated conspiracy of the arrangement. The magic of a great jazz band is that often, you can’t tell—and certainly not from one performance alone. Jazz collectors treasure alternate takes for precisely this reason. The only thing as surprising as the prevalence of well-practiced licks is the astounding synchronicity of a band’s adventures into the unplanned. So the experience of seeing a ghostly resemblance of what you just saw on stage squeezed into a browser window with lo-fi audio is, well, uncanny.

I also feel compelled to add that the performance approximated by the video above is about as representative of the rest of the concert as a musical photo negative. In other words, for the rest of their time onstage, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom (with Tony Grey on bass, Martin Valihora on drums, and David Fiuczynski on a double-necked guitar), playing selections from their 2007 album Time Control alongside standards like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Ue wo muite arukuo” (“Sukiyaki”), and “Caravan”, sounded like anything and everything but Oscar Peterson.

Most instrumentalists can be said to trace a glutinous outline of all their forebears in varying concentrations. But Hiromi isn’t every jazz piano style rolled into one: she’s any jazz piano style at discrete pockets of time. She’ll stride into the scene like Erroll Garner, let the grand piano ring over a melodious staircase of Kenny Barron intervals, take a Chick Corea minute to sing and sob on all her pads at once, launch into a Herbie Hancock space-age funk, and top it off a dash of Ahmad Jamal’s crispy blues—sometimes all in the same suite, and with the sporadic slam of the fists or forearm on the keys to make sure you’re paying attention.

I would not call this “seamless”, a word that implies the continuity of a polynomial. The transitions are abrupt, the stylistic lineages unmistakable. Listening to Hiromi is like witnessing a cubist tour of jazz and rock piano with the edges sharpened and the innards bursting out of frame. And while I’m admittedly not too fluent with the evolutionary histories of the other instruments, I get the distinct sense that her bandmates are doing the same, pushing their axes to the limits of their prog-rock vocabulary.

As exciting as it is to listen to musicians who grew up on everything and decided to play it all, one has to wonder if there’s anywhere to go next. If the contemporary style is a collision of styles, where do we go from here? Collisions within collisions, or somewhere else? A sonic bloom, indeed.

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