A Whirlwind Called Hiromi

Back from Sweden jet-lagged but unbowed after 10 time zones and 16 hours in the air, the Rifftides staff is alternating work and naps, some voluntary. (Pictured: above the Baltic Sea.)

Over the next couple of days, I’ll give you brief impressions of performances in the final days of the Ystad Jazz Festival.

An economy-size pianist with massive technique, Hiromi Uehara performs using only her given name, a la Eldar or Madonna. With skill that evidently knows no limitations of speed or control, she dazzled a capacity Ystad audience in a repertoire that included several pieces from her 2010 solo album Place To Be. From time to time, she employed fists, forearms and elbows, but there was nothing random about her unorthodox style; no unintended dissonance. Although she has played around the world, this was her first appearance in Sweden.

Hiromi slid into “I Got Rhythm,” hinting at the tune before giving the piece a power infusion that took her to the edge of mania and recalled no one so much as Mel Henke (1915-1979), another pianist who specialized in entertaining keyboard displays that verged on the athletic. Introducing “BQE,” she said it was inspired by trips on New York City’s crowded Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Descriptive music, “BQE”’s cleverness and adroitness were in spirit akin to Raymond Scott’s cartoon scores and certain pieces by his quintet. I must stress the unlikelihood that Hiromi, who was born in 1979, was directly influenced by Scott’s or Henke’s mid-century recordings, but it’s not impossible for a woman so eclectic. In “Old Castle By a River in the Middle of a Forest,” Hiromi reached into the piano, strumming strings and rapping the keyboard to create an atmosphere of mystery. She introduced harmonies that might have been influenced by Brahms or John Lewis’s “Django,” possibly by both. She worked several variations using those chords, but when the piece ended, the impression was of display, not the story-telling of first rate improvisation.

The shade of Errol Garner hovered over Hiromi’s invention on the Pachalbel Canon. After an amusing interlude of swirling glissandos in her right hand while the left played calypso, she channeled Garner’s insistent rhythmic comping to a rewarding conclusion and a standing ovation. Her encore was an unannounced 16-bar piece that swung hard and included a solo in which she used one hand on the keys while the other muffled the piano’s strings. All 10 fingers—or was it 20?—back on the keyboard, face wreathed in smiles, she manufactured a long vamp with a tremolo ending that brought the audience to its feet for another ovation. The rhythmic clapping laced with a few unreserved Swedish shouts and whistles lasted at least five minutes, but the crowd’s demand for a second encore was in vain.

In a hallway after the concert, I heard a prominent festival musician tell a colleague, “I play the piano, but holy _____!”

Next time: reviews of further Ystad concerts, including one by a rather different pianist, Benny Green.

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