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 album?
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 hard already.
Given how strong your technique is and how quickly you can move, you’d never guess.
[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 handcan 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 band music.
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 neither?
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 practice?
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 the instrument.
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.