“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!
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 dream-like composition?
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 road.
“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 keys.
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 the most.
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 angles.
How do you keep your finger dexterity in top shape with such a demanding touring schedule? Do you practice when you’re on the road?
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 live, too.
What do you look forward to accomplishing musically?
So much. I want to be a better piano player. There is so much to learn beyondthe 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 wooden pitch-bender.”