From its very first moments — a
machine-gun volley of perfectly-timed
notes, frenetically joyous and angular — you
can tell that Hiromi’s Place To Be is anything
but another sleepy, contemplative
solo piano album. In fact, filling the space
left by her excellent regular bandmates, the
young jazz fusion keyboardists’ musical
energy manifests even more vibrantly,
resulting in one of the most explosively creative
solo piano albums Keyboard Central
has ever heard.
If you know Hiromi’s synth-y trio with
bassist Tony Grey and drummer Martin
Valihora, her stellar collaborations with
Chick Corea, or her über-funky work with
guitarist Dave Fiuczynski in the quartet
Hiromi’s Sonicbloom, you’re aware that
she’s a free spirit of outstanding technique
and fierce compositional prowess. Place
To Be showcases her talents on both
fronts, leading the listener through a glitzy
Las Vegas-themed suite, as well as a truly
original, time-travel reinvention of Pachelbel’s
Canon — all while continuing to pay
tribute to jazz piano greats like Oscar
Peterson throughout. Coming from the
same mind that created the unforgettable
synth-fusion epic “Kung Fu World Champion,”
such eclecticism, skill, and fun is
entirely to be expected.
We caught up with Hiromi at her home
in Brooklyn, shortly after her return from
concerts in her native Japan, to discuss the
roots and realization of Place To Be.
Why did you decide to record a solo
It’s something that I wanted to try for many
years. I recorded the album just before I
became 30. When I was considering making
this solo album, I started to think about
how my life has been these past ten years.
I realized I was touring and traveling to so
many places, and I just wanted to make an
album with the gratitude I felt for my audiences.
I wanted to thank the people who
gave me the places to be.
Your version of Pachelbel’s Canon is
striking. How did you get such an
interesting sound out of the piano?
I just put a metallic ruler in the piano and I
took it off with my right hand while I was
playing with my left hand during the song. It
was pretty hard. I had to practice so I didn’t
make noise when I took it off — and I had to
make sure I didn’t go out of time with my
left hand when I was doing something else
with my right hand.
Do you play inside the piano often?
I’ve been doing it since I was very small.
Just through curiosity I started playing with
strings and putting stuff inside the piano.
How did you come across the idea of
using a metal ruler as opposed to bubble
gum, marbles, or anything else?
When I was small, I had some chances to
play the harpsichord. I was fascinated and I
was looking for that same kind of sound —
and I just found it with the ruler. I thought,
“Yeah, this is kind of similar.” Pachelbel’s
Canon is such an old song. I wanted to do
something that went from the past to now. I
wanted to make that transition from original
to current, and that’s why I started it kind of
oldie style. [Laughs.]
What was the compositional process
like for this album?
I wanted to choose songs that came from
physical places. Sometimes when I see a
landscape, a melody lands in my head —
that’s how I start writing. It’s just like how
some people paint — but I write music. I
compose bit by bit, trying to construct the
song, have it make sense, and have it be
close to the image that I saw.
Of course, I write things that I can’t
really play. I do that so often. I just hear it,
write it, and then realize that I need three
hands to play what I’ve composed. When I
record songs, I have to practice so that I
can play complex things with one hand. So
that’s hard stuff. [Laughs.]
So you really push your comfort zone
when it comes to technique.
I write things that I’m not used to playing. I
don’t like to go with the habits that my
hands have, so I try to sing a melody, so
that my fingers don’t lead the way, so that the melody really has to lead itself. The
melody that is ringing in my brain, in my
heart, has to lead the song
Having small hands made me have to
work hard to play piano — and I still have to
work hard. My goal as a pianist is to make
the instrument sound full. Whenever I listen
to amazing pianists, they make the instrument
sound like an orchestra. I can hear
how much potential that instrument carries,
so I really want to capture that as a pianist.
To make it happen with small hands is not
that easy, so I have to practice hard.
How wide do your hands stretch? Can
you hit tenths?
No, no way! Octaves — and if I stretch
harder, I can play more, from C to D, but
that’s the maximum. Octaves are very
Given how strong your technique is
and how quickly you can move, you’d
[Laughs.] That’s good news.
What advice could you offer to piano
players who want to make the piano
sound as big as you do?
When you play, you have to hear the
orchestration in the piano. Try thinking like
you’re playing bass with the pinky and the
ring finger on the left hand, and then maybe
guitar with the other three fingers in the left
hand. Maybe three fingers in the right hand can be trombone, saxophone, and trumpet.
The top two — the ring finger and the pinky
on the right hand — can be flute and oboe.
That’s what I see when I play. Even though
the piano is only one instrument, it can be
so many pieces of an orchestra
It sounds like you’ve really spent a
lot of time with orchestral and big
Yes, and I’ve written for orchestras and big
bands. [Having had that experience] definitely
helps in my solo piano playing.
If you’re trying to make the piano
sound like an orchestra, how do you
avoid playing too much?
It’s just like any orchestral piece. Everyone
doesn’t always have to play. Sometimes it’s
flutes only. Sometimes it’s strings only.
For me, it’s so important to honor all 88
keys — not necessarily to play all of them,
but to be aware of them. The piano is like a
living animal. I feel that each key has a soul
and every key is trying to get my attention
to be played. A lot of pianists, when they
play with a bass player and drummer, tend
to use the upper side of the piano because
a bass player covers the lower range. But I
think that if I did that, the left half of the
piano would miss out, and be sad. That’s
how I think when I make music for the band
as well — I want to be aware of the existence
of 88 keys and make them happy. I’m
the player, but at the same time, I’m like a
conductor in charge of 88 players.
I don’t always play every key in one
show — that could be too busy. The important
thing is if I’m conscious of each one.
Awareness is always the key.
When you write music, do you write it
by hand, use notation software, or
I write by hand. It can be chords, notes, and
words. Sometimes I just write words that can make me connect to the landscape.
What sorts of words?
I’m walking down the street and then suddenly
I think, “Why am I standing here?”
And I look at the sky and it’s blue. Or
something like that. So that I can reconnect
to that image and feeling, it’s nice to
put [reference words in the musical
score] as I write.
When I play music, I want people to
see a landscape. Music and visual images
are very strongly connected, and music
makes people dream. I’m like a soundtrack
creator and listeners can be the film director.
I’m always curious if the images I see
and the images the audience sees are the
same or not. Maybe it’s completely different.
Either way, I want to stimulate that
part of the brain that makes you see the
landscape in the music.
What advice could you offer to musicians
or composers who want to do
that as well?
Experience more things in life, because
music doesn’t come from music — music
comes from experiences and what you see,
what you feel. You cannot think about notes
when you compose. You have to think
about something else — to translate what
you feel into notes.
So if you spend all of your time in a
practice room, you’re not going to
have much to say.
Definitely not. But practicing is an important
thing. I am a practicer — I love it so
much, so I do sometimes lock myself in
the house and practice hard. But it’s
important to feel the weather changes. It’s
important to feel the seasons. It’s important
to talk to people, and learn, and just
experience life. It’s very important
because there are so many things that you
can learn outside of the practice room,
and then bring back to your music.
Can you talk a little bit about how you
When I’m with the piano, I do exercises. I
do play a little classical music, not only for
the technique, but more for the compositional
aspects because classical
composers really know how to make the
piano sound full. They have a deep understanding
of the instrument. I also just love
playing standards. And when I’m not with a
piano, I listen to great musical giants. That’s
the most amazing practicing source, I think.
How do you keep your fingers in shape
when you’re flying all over the world?
You can do so much practicing just from a
table. I always try to move my fingers somehow,
so that my muscle memory doesn’t go
away. When I can be in a club for a couple
days, of course, I go in earlier than the performance
time so I can feel the piano.
Do people ever look at you funny on
airplanes when you just move your
fingers around a lot?
Yes, they do. [Laughs.] Sometimes, I don’t
realize that I’m moving the fingers and making
these huge noises on the armrest. Then
the person who’s sitting next to me will ask,
“What are you doing?” And I’m like, “Huh?”
I’ve been doing it for too many years. I
don’t even realize it sometimes.
How much of the music on Place To
Be is written note-for-note, and how
much is improvised?
It depends. The “Viva! Vegas” songs are
more written, but others are less so.
Songs like “Somewhere” are very open.
It’s more like a standard where I only have
a lead sheet.
I have a lot of freedom, especially
because I’m playing solo. In a live performance
situation, as long as I’m responsible
for what’s coming next, then I can go anywhere
and make new stories. Sometimes
some idea hits my brain when I’m playing —
okay, let’s try this route. It’s a completely
new journey that I’ve never taken before.
And it’s very risky as well, because [this
time] there’s nobody else on the stage
apart from me, so I have to be responsible
for every single decision that I make. No
one will save me if I’m about to jump out. I
love that edgy feeling.
Do you ever get nervous?
No. It’s just far too much fun.
On “BQE” in particular, which parts
were written out beforehand?
The melody and the interlude are pretty
much it, I think. The BQE [Brooklyn-
Queens Expressway in New York City] is
chaotic and hectic. Then when you are very
tired of the drive, you suddenly see the
beautiful skyline of Manhattan, which
makes everybody dream, and there is a
crazy contrast between reality and fantasy.
The interlude actually stands for the skyline
that suddenly brings you back to the reason
why you came to New York in the first
place. The BQE is kind of the road that you
have to take to get to the dream.
Every day has different places and
directions that you have to take — of course
in the expressway — but in life, too. So
when I’m playing in a performance, I always
can create new drama in the song. I always
have to come back to the interlude.
How similar are your overall performances
show to show?
I want to be a storyteller when I play music,
and I have so many stories to tell. Some
parts are set, but then I also have these
improvised parts, and improvised stories
that I can only tell on that very day I play
them. It’s so much fun.
Hiromi On the Road
Piano preferences: Most of the time I try to bring the Yamaha CF-IIIS. I grew up
with a Yamaha, so the action and the pedal — everything feels like home. My body’s
just accustomed to playing Yamaha.
Of course, I’ve met many beautiful pianos from other companies. I love their
sounds, but I just don’t feel home when I play them. Every piano maker makes a
different instrument. So even though I love the sound, I just don’t feel I belong to
I use the piano as a melodic instrument and a percussion instrument as well. It’s
very hard to find a very warm piano that also has a very clear attack.
Synth rig: I’m playing a Nord Electro 73, a Nord Lead 2, and a Korg MicroKorg,
which I used on the two albums before this solo album.
Why the MicroKorg? It’s a very simple keyboard and I just needed some extra
sounds. I was looking for a keyboard that fit on top of the piano, and with the Nord
Lead [there already], I only had a very small physical space available.