Album Review | Hiromi Spectrum
Words by Brad Yeakel (Opti Mystic Outlooks)
Very few things have captured my attention with such explosive fury as my introduction to Japanese jazz pianist, Hiromi Uehara. My friend, Adam was visiting several years ago and showed me a YouTube video of Hiromi’s Trio project playing a song called “Move.” Her musical mastery went past the realm of what I had ever seen, and I was enthralled from the jump. Over the last 5 years, she has become one of my musical obsessions. Her latest release, Spectrum was just released in Japan in September, and has now arrived in the US in early October.
Spectrum’s first track is appropriately titled, “Kaleidoscope.” Hiromi’s fingers waste little time before engaging in a sort of cat and mouse/call and response sequence where her hands shadow each other through a gauntlet of prismatic and ambitious melodic work. It took me several minutes before I noticed the lack of accompaniment. Hiromi’s boisterous and dynamic playing is more engaging than most 5 piece bands can play on their best day. The energy she pours into each song is maniacal, frantic, precise, and poetic.
“Whiteout” sprawls into grandiose and sophisticated lounge jazz. It builds from a mellow, and inviting introduction, into murky melodies with cascading scales falling from her fingertips in torrential outpours.
“Yellow Wurlitzer Blues” leans a bit heavier on the honky-tonk/piano bar jazz style than much of Hiromi’s other work. Shades of Billy Joel, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Vince Guaraldi color this piece with a vintage rock and roll feel that Uehara masterfully weaves throughout her contemporary spin on the common ground in blues, r&b, and fusion.
The title track of the album is the most consistent with her previous style. Furious fingerwork, compositional dominance, complicated rhythms, thematic consistency, and genius execution have been the hallmarks of her career, and “Spectrum” is another gem.
The central track on this album is a thoughtful, beautiful, and impressive take on the Beatles, “Blackbird.” She dances around the melody with charming variations, bringing the themes home at opportune moments and expounding in a way only she can.
“Mr. C.C.” barrels through like a vaudeville soundtrack no one was expecting. This album began to come into focus during this song. Obviously I expected the album title indicated a diverse offering, but this tune made me sense there was a cultural element as well. This album offers a taste of the styles you would find being played on jazz pianos from Royal halls to saloons and honky-tonks.
“Once in a Blue Moon” continued with delicate precision. One of the slower pieces on the album, the airy and sparse opening helps mask the intricacies that emerge, but only for a time. Eventually, the subtle nuances begin to reveal complex rhythms, modal mingling, and compositional diversity to match the album’s theme.
“Rhapsody in Various Shades of Blue” traverses Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue” in a multitude of styles. The treatment is over 22 minutes and hops through several stylistic approaches to the theme, with what sounds like a quote of “So What,” in the middle. This, along with “Blackbird,” are fun to hear as someone who is pretty familiar with both. Her takes are creative, and demonstrate how truly exceptional her skills are not only on the keys, but from a musical director perspective as well. Her adaptations are brain-bending.
To round things out, “Sepia Effect” seems to stroll through Central Park, arm in arm with a loved one. It’s elegance and beauty is tinged with melancholy, but perseveres in good faith towards a pleasant end.
As a concept album, this hit the mark. With a name like “Spectrum” you expect a diverse offering. The record hits on a wide range of jazz styles and her interpretations of “Blackbird” and “Rhapsody in Blue” showcase a creativity worthy of Lennon, McCartney, and Gershwin’s admiration. To add to the auditory array, the titles of the tracks include color references, and the first track is called “Kaleidoscope.” If there were a checklist of characteristics of a great concept album, Spectrum hits them all.