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
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
Next: Interview continues with details about the piano used to record Move, exclusive video, and more!
What pianists inspired the sense of fearlessness in your playing and composition?
The first two pianists I listened to were Errol Garner and
Oscar Peterson. Then I started listening to Chick Corea, Herbie
Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. I love listening to old recordings with
alternate takes on them, where take 1 is completely different from takes
2 and 3. In a way, I find improvisation to be a very natural thing,
because every human being does it. Even if you have a routine or
schedule, like a nine-to-five job, it’s never the exact same thing day
to day. It’s almost harder to play something the exact same way every time. So for me it’s about trying to make every day interesting.
Who are some other musical influences that readers might be surprised about?
I like [singer, songwriter, and Once composer] Glen Hansard very much. I like music that touches my heart and his music is beautiful.
The second song on the album, “Brand New Day,” is a
total departure from the song before it. What inspired that almost
Well, because Move is a sort of “concept” album, I
was just following the course of time in my writing. The second track is
about me finally feeling sunshine. Most of time, I leave my hotel
before the sun rises and by the time I get to the airport I get to see
the sunrise. It’s a sort of common landscape that I experience on the
“Endeavor” is another complete stylistic change, with its funky groove and filter-laden synth sweeps. What are you using there?
It’s the Nord Lead 2. In my past projects I also used the
Nord Electro. I started playing electronic keyboards because I loved how
guitar players could bend the sound. I wanted to apply that to the
You seem to pay great attention to how the album’s
songs are sequenced. Many people say the album is dead as a unit of
experiencing music, but you defy that head-on.
To me the album is very important. It’s like an
entire movie. Even if each scene makes sense separately, the film
becomes great when it works as a whole. I like composing songs in
different keys because I think every key has its own personality. When I
write a song, I try to transpose it into a key where I feel it shines
Are you comfortable playing in every key?
Now, yes. I wouldn’t have said that 15 years ago, but now I
am. One thing I would recommend for musicians who want to be able to
play in every key is to write songs in all 12 keys. You want to be able to play your own songs correctly! [Laughs.] If you feel weak playing in certain keys, write songs in them. It really helps.
“Rainmaker” has an ascending figure in C minor that you later take through a major tonality. . . .
When I was writing that song, I saw this visual image—the
rain starts, then I hear storms off in the distance. Then the rain stops
and you can see a little sunshine, but the clouds start again and a
dark cloud is moving in. You can hear the storms far away at the end of
the song with the last drum roll. So I had a clear image of how I wanted
the song to be.
The new album also features your Suite Escapism, with the parts “Reality,” “Fantasy,” and “In Between.” Can you talk about writing extended, interlocking compositions?
I love writing those kinds of pieces. As a composer it’s a
lot of fun, because if you write one motif in the first movement, you
can bring it back again in the third movement in a different way. Maybe
not every listener catches it, but I know it’s there.
Often we think of the bass as the anchor, but with
Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar there are times where he is as
prominent a melodic player as you are.
Yeah. His vibrato is so beautiful, and with the way he
uses his volume pedal, he can make the bass sound like cello and guitar,
and of course a really fat bass guitar. He’s really multi-dimensional,
just like Simon. I like to be able to capture them both from different
How do you keep your finger dexterity in top shape with
such a demanding touring schedule? Do you practice when you’re on the
Well, when I have the luxury of being in the same city for
six days like I do now, then I can really practice. But I usually just
try and get to the venue as soon as I can. So if the sound check is five
o’clock, I get there at two. I love practicing.
What kinds of things do you practice?
It depends what I want to work on. I usually practice
scales and pieces from classical music, or I work on chords. But even if
I don’t have a piano, I always do finger exercises—on a table or a hard
surface like a dictionary. Just like drummers play on a practice pad,
I’ll practice fingering on a notebook or a desk. I used to do it on
airplane tray tables, but the passengers in front of me got so annoyed I
had to stop and start carrying a book instead! I’ll play fingering
exercises like 5-4, 5-4, 5-3, 5-3, 5-2, 5-2, and so on. I just try to wake up my fingers.
Your song “Margarita” brings on the funk in a big way. Are there musicians from that genre who left a lasting impression on you?
I’m a big fan of Sly and the Family Stone. On “Margarita,”
I just started with the bass line. I imagined Anthony playing that bass
line and thought, “This is so cool.” It’s a really fun track to play
What do you look forward to accomplishing musically?
So much. I want to be a better piano player. There is so much to learn beyond the
technical aspects of the instrument. Music really reflects life, so the
more you learn, the more you can express. There are things you can only
express at certain times in your life. Maybe there were things I played
at age 20 that I can’t play anymore, because every year that I grow up,
I gain something and I lose something. It’s just like growing as a
human being. So the piano is my lifetime project. I just want to be able
to understand it as much as I can for the rest of my life.
What have you learned about what it takes to have a successful career in music?
It’s about listening—to others, and to yourself.
Music is just like a conversation, and the more vocabulary you have, the
more you can say what you really want to say. I learned English
as a second language, and 14 years ago, I couldn’t speak any English at
all. Little by little, I started to get more vocabulary together. I
listened to native speakers and I started to understand how to speak
better myself. That’s how babies learn to speak. It’s the same in music.
The more you listen, the more you get. So when you hear something
someone else is playing that you like, you should play it as much as you
can. Play it over and over again, like you’re learning a new word.
After a while, it will become part of your vocabulary. It won’t sound
borrowed any longer. It will sound like it’s coming from you.
The Keys to Move
The keyboard duties on Hiromi’s new album Move were handled primarily by a nine-foot Yamaha CFX piano—the company’s new premium concert grand.
“The acoustic piano was my first instrument and it will be
my main, inseparable instrument for my entire life,” Hiromi says. “I
feel I can really reflect myself at the piano, and there’s still so much
to learn from it. I love the sound of the CFX. It has a very beautiful
high end and also a really strong bottom end. I love the mixture of
brilliance and warmth in its sound. Also, since I’ve been playing Yamaha
pianos since I was six, I’m very used to the hammer action and I can
control it well. I’m from the same town as Yamaha—Hamamatsu, Japan—so
we’ve been friends for a long time!”
For the electronic textures on Move, Hiromi relied
on a Nord Lead 2 virtual analog synth. “I started playing keyboards in
high school,” she continues. “My first keyboard was a Yamaha DX7. I was
always a big fan of how guitar players could bend the sound. You can’t
do that or sustain the sound too long on the piano. I love guitar
players like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and David Fiuczynski, and now I
can use the keyboard like a guitar and also as a percussive accent to
the piano. The Nord sound is very nostalgic and warm. I also love its