There are few jazz musicians who compare to Hiromi Uehara, a Japanese pianist known for her unique style. With her hair arranged in a striking fashion that reaches about a foot above her head, the 44-year-old showcases her strength by seamlessly blending various genres like bebop, classical, and progressive rock on the synthesizer. Her powerful and dynamic performances often result in enthusiastic cheers and standing ovations, a departure from the typically subdued atmosphere of jazz clubs.
“My audience is so wide-ranging; I remember a recent show in Italy where there was a very well-dressed older woman in pearls on the front row and next to her was a guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt,” she says with a laugh. “Further along there was a seven-year-old kid who I could tell was learning the piano.”
Hiromi is currently in a gray hotel room in Stanford, California, preparing for her performance tonight before beginning her upcoming world tour. She will also be performing at the London jazz festival later this month. Despite her lively music, Hiromi speaks softly as she reflects on how her powerful stage presence was developed out of a difficult situation.
In 1999, I relocated to the United States to pursue my studies. It was then that I became aware of the stereotype that all Asian people look alike,” she recalls. “During a concert, a man approached my Asian friend and praised her for her performance. Despite our obvious physical differences, this occurrence was not uncommon. I made the decision to create a unique look for myself that would distinguish me as Hiromi.
After 20 years since the release of her debut album Another Mind, which was overseen by her teacher Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi has evolved beyond just her appearance to set herself apart from other musicians. Her collaboration with bassist Stanley Clarke earned her a Grammy in 2011, and she has since put out 12 albums that showcase her talents in complex trio arrangements, chamber jazz, and a movie soundtrack for the 2023 anime Blue Giant. She also gained recognition at 18 for composing a jingle for a Nissan commercial featuring Mr Bean.
As one of the few women leading bands in a genre dominated by men, Hiromi has learned to appreciate defying expectations. She recalls a performance at the Toronto jazz festival in 2003, when she was 24 years old and noticed the audience’s confusion due to her short stature and youthful appearance. Despite this initial reaction, Hiromi was able to win them over with her musical talent, and she enjoys the challenge of changing people’s perceptions.
Her latest record, Sonicwonderland, upends expectations once more. A stark contrast to the acoustic piano and string quartet backing of 2021’s Silver Lining Suite, Hiromi plays squelching funk keys and squealing synths, backed by a new, young band of improvisers. Over its nine tracks, spanning the synths and slap bass of the title track to the Latin jazz freneticism of Up, Sonicwonderland is perhaps the closest thing to Hiromi’s onstage exuberance.
After the pandemic restrictions were lifted, she wrote the piece and shared, “I felt an immense sense of liberation.” She explained that she explored various features of the keyboard, which were not possible on an acoustic piano, to fully express herself. She noticed that others were also embracing this newfound freedom – during performances, audiences were uninhibited and she wanted to continue fostering that energy.
Hiromi’s love for the unpredictable energy of an audience developed at a young age. She started learning piano at the age of four and was soon introduced to jazz. By the time she was 12, she was already traveling to Taiwan to perform in her first international show. This experience sparked her desire to perform all over the world, as she realized that music has no boundaries. She could connect with people who spoke different languages through her music. Hiromi compares the piano to a plane, as it has the ability to take her anywhere.
She continued to perform at the United Nations and with the Czech Philharmonic at the age of 14. At 17, she had a fortuitous meeting with renowned pianist and Miles Davis collaborator Chick Corea, who invited her to play at his concert in Tokyo the next day. Ten years later, they released a live album together called “Duet.” She recalls this as her dream moment, and excitedly ran 200 meters after Corea agreed to make a record with her.
Influenced by a range of artists from Corea to Frank Zappa and incorporating elements of funk fusion, Hiromi is committed to carving out her own unique path. She explains, “My goal is to continue to push boundaries and experiment with new ideas.” As Ahmad Jamal once said, “My greatest work is always ahead of me,” which serves as inspiration for Hiromi as she prepares to wow yet another audience with her signature stage presence.