Hiromi Creates a Soundtrack for Everyday Life
By Jon Regen
Thu, 15 Aug 2013
“I really love Frank Zappa,” proclaims jazz pianist and composer Hiromi, seated next to a nine-foot concert grand piano at Yamaha Artist Services in midtown Manhattan. “He’s been one of my biggest influences, and he’s who I want to meet first when I go to Heaven—if I get there!”
One listen to Hiromi’s devastating new disc Move and you’ll understand her fascination with Zappa’s genre-bending music. Backed by Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips on drums, Hiromi soars on a scintillating set of originals that marry elements from jazz, rock, classical, funk, and world music. Conceived as a “soundtrack of the day,” the album draws inspiration from the sounds one hears—and emotions one feels—at different times of the day. From the backbeat-infused, metrically shifting title track, to more introspective cuts like “Brand New Day” and “Fantasy,” Move proves that Hiromi is more than just a technical force at the piano. She’s also a fearless composer whose music is beyond categorization.

Can you explain the “soundtrack of the day” concept behind Move?

Well, I was thinking about how there are certain emotions I feel at particular times of the day. I wanted to write a kind of soundtrack that followed the daily stream of time—like the sound of the alarm clock going off in the morning, which I mimicked on the intro to “Move.” Each song follows the passing of time during the day. 

What inspired you to write an album with this premise?

I think it was the idea of how time affects my emotions. I tend to write differently in the morning than I do in the afternoon or at night. Also, when I travel, I sometimes actually lose the morning or the night. So when the next day comes and that time comes around again, I feel strange, like I haven’t had that feeling in a while. So one idea on the album was to experiment with how different times of the day make me feel.

Move is your second album with Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on bass. How did you choose them?

I had Anthony as a guest on my first two albums, and I had always wanted to make a full album with him. I’d bump into him at festivals or at clubs and we’d talk about working on future projects together. In 2009, I felt like the time had come, so I brought up the idea to him of doing a trio project together. As I started writing songs, the drum sound I was looking for became clearer to me. That’s when I thought about Simon. I knew his playing from the Who, Toto, and his solo projects. When I told Anthony I was thinking of Simon, he was thrilled. So my manager called Simon about playing on the project and said, “Hiromi is interested in you for her new project. I can send you samples because you’re probably not familiar with her music.” And that’s when Simon said, “Actually, yesterday someone sent me a YouTube video of her playing with Chick Corea and I’m watching it right now!” 

That’s probably the easiest pitch your manager ever had to make!

[Laughs.] Yeah. Simon was also thrilled that Anthony was in the trio because they’ve been playing together on and off for the past 30 years. They both understand and can play all kinds of music. Simon is probably most well known as a rock drummer, but his father is a jazz musician, so he grew up listening to swing and jazz and playing in big bands. Anthony loves classical music. We can really talk deeply about classical pianists. It’s amazing how wide-ranging both of their understandings are. So the three of us have that in common. We love all kinds of great music.

I read that you wanted to write songs especially for this band. Can you talk about the process of writing with specific players in mind?

Since we made the album Voice, the three of us have been touring and playing together a lot. We would jam together at sound check, and the more we played, the deeper I understood Anthony and Simon’s playing. Whenever I write music as a composer, I want to make the other musicians shine. It’s also as if the composer Hiromi is writing for the pianist Hiromi. They are different people, and sometimes I actually write something that I can’t technically play! So the pianist part of me then has to practice hard to satisfy the composer part of me. So that’s how I write. I orchestrate everything for piano, bass, and drums, and I try to make everybody shine in different ways. 

Can you give an example of writing something that you then have to practice in order to perform?

For instance, I might hear different melodies in the upper and lower registers of the piano, but playing them at the same time is quite difficult. But when I hear it I can’t stop writing, so I just write. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about the fact that I can’t play it. I just want to hear what I write, so later I have to practice to make that happen.

Why does the title track start with your piano impersonation of an alarm clock? 

It comes from me traveling so much. I have to set an alarm clock and take the earliest flight of the day to get to the next city to play. So most of the time, my mornings start with an alarm clock. I love all sorts of sounds in the world, but never liked that one, because it’s such a frustrating, irritating sound. So I thought, “Maybe if I use this sound, I’ll come to like it.” I guess it worked because now I’ve been starting to sing it! [Laughs.]

Can you give us other examples of finding musical inspiration in ordinary sounds? 

Sometimes when you’re crossing the street and all the different cars are honking at the same time, you get these amazing cluster chords. It makes me feel like I’m a conductor in an orchestra and they’re all tuning up. Sometimes I just stop and listen to it. 

You’ve said that “Move” one is one of the most difficult tunes you’ve ever written. Why?

Well, it’s difficult to make that tune sound easy, because there are a lot of metric changes and there are also rhythmic unisons between the three of us in the band, as well as high unisons between Anthony and me. You really have to get used to the song to nail everything down and still make it sound easy.

There’s a great musical dialogue between you and Simon on that track, where you’re playing right-hand flourishes and he’s responding. Was that written out?

No, that was improvised. Even if I’m a soloist, I think there always needs to be group improvisation. It’s a constant communication where we all try to surprise each other. That’s the most fun part about improvised music. You never know what you’re getting and you try to find a different routing every day to get from one section to the next.

Next: Interview continues with details about the piano used to record Move, exclusive video, and more!

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