“I wanted to capture the moment when people feel a strong spark for something,” jazz pianist/composer Hiromi says of her new album, aptly titled Spark (Telarc). “It’s like when you first get introduced to an amazing book or movie or play; the moment of encountering something.”
Hiromi has been making sparks fly alongside her ensemble of Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips on drums since their first album Voice was released in 2011. Much more than just a super group, Hiromi’s trio project is a meeting of like musical minds; a collective of ferociously accomplished musicians with both NASA-like technical facility and heartfelt restraint. The band blends blistering solos, earth-shaking grooves, odd-meter interludes, and tender ballads into its signature, cinematic sound.
Following the band’s sound check at New York’s storied Highline Ballroom, Hiromi took time to talk about the process and precision behind the making of Spark.
Photos By Juan Patino Hair/Makeup: Yaemi TanakaThe last time we spoke was back in 2013, when your album Move came out. Can you tell me how this ensemble, featuring Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips, has evolved since then?
Well, we’ve been touring so much and doing countless shows. Simon has actually been counting the number of shows and says yesterday was number 263! [Laughs.] You know during the writing process as a composer, it’s always so much fun when you know who the performer is you are writing for. When I know that, I write more specific things. Playing with them so much made me able to look at both of them from every different angle. I could really show sides of them that hadn’t been shown before. Also as a band, we really sound like one. We know exactly what’s going on inside of each other’s head and we can really read each other’s minds now. We have little telepathic moments.
Back in 2013 you spoke of how you wanted to write songs specifically for this band. You said, “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. I orchestrate everything for piano, bass, and drums, and I try to make everybody shine in different ways.” Is that still your process when you write for this band?
Yes, and it’s amazing that the composer Hiromi still can write so many things that the pianist Hiromi can’t play, you know? [Laughs.] I do write a lot of odd meters, for example, but I never really try to write odd meters or other difficult things. Things just naturally become that way. For example, the song I wrote called “Dilemma,” for the new album is in 11/8. When I first came up with the melody, I just loved it. Then I counted it and realized, “Oh my goodness, it’s in eleven! I’ve never played in eleven.”
A prime number is always kind of difficult to play in. I thought, “Can I make it 12/8 or maybe 5/4,” maybe adding one more beat, or releasing one beat? So I tried to make it easier, but what happened was that the special feeling I had for the original melody was gone. So I realized it had to be in eleven. It usually happens naturally like that, and then I just have to keep playing until I feel comfortable with it.
It’s almost like the way different keys resonate. You could have a song that sounds a certain way in the key of F#. But if you bring it down to F…
It disappears. It doesn’t have the same quality.
You recently said about your new album Spark, “Playing with this trio is like a never-ending adventure. They never play it safe and they always look for new things. We always play like this is our first and last show. With how much passion and love we feel for the music, every show I feel a spark.” And I think you can hear that kind of energy from the very moment the band comes in on the new album. It’s like an electric switch gets pushed. There’s a kinetic energy that jumps out of the speakers.
You know, we enjoy playing every show so much. Anthony and Simon always try to play things they never played before, and they always approach the songs from a different angle. For example, when we record, it’s like a prototype of the song; like a “first edition.” [Laughs.] The great thing about playing with the same band for, now, six years, is that when we play older songs, like those from my 2011 release Voice, they are now reaching a place that we never really thought about when we first recorded them. It doesn’t mean that the current versions are better than the first ones. They’re just different. We are always just trying to excite ourselves, and trying to find fun ways to approach the material. And it’s so much fun when you have continuous shows with the same songs. We are improvising differently every day, trying to find new adventures that we haven’t already discovered in the song.
Can you let us into your creative process? When you are writing a song, by the time you bring it to the band, do you have everything set in your mind about how you want it arranged? Or do you work it out once you bring the music to them? Or is it a combination of both methods?
Actually, it’s a combination. It depends on the song. The writing process first starts with me composing everything on my own. I write every part. Sometimes I have specific rhythms that I want Simon to play—like specific grooves and feels. And for Anthony, I have specific bass lines for certain songs, and sometimes I want to double the bass line with him with synth bass, or with my left hand on the piano. I write out the chart, and then I record a solo version of the song. It’s very “old school.” [Laughs.] I just hit the button and play. Then I send it to the band, and they listen and interpret the music in their own way. Next we meet and we go to a rehearsal studio and try to play the song together.
Sometimes, the groove Simon comes up with to go with the “hits” I want in the song might not go well with the bass line I wrote for Anthony. So we might have to change it. Or sometimes when I bring a song to the group and we improvise, we might decide, “Maybe we should change the feel in section B or section D,” or “Let’s have some surprises and have a one bar break here.” There are so many things that you can only realize when you just keep playing.
Photos By Juan Patino Hair/Makeup: Yaemi Tanaka But when you come in with a song, you already have a pretty strong idea of what you want?
Yeah, I do: I have more than half [of it finished]. I write out the frame—the body, the chord progressions, and the bass line. I have a specific idea of how I want the song to be.
The title track begins with what sounds almost like a dream. In fact, your piano takes on a music box-like quality on this one. You said that this beginning passage is “The moment that you bring yourself into the story.” What’s the story of this song?
I wanted the intro to express the feeling of when you open the first page of a book. The story varies; it depends on the listener, because everybody has different sparks for different things.
Soon after that intro, a series of cascading keyboard chords comes in, like a combination of progressive rock, Rush and Vangelis’ score to Chariots of Fire. What keyboards did you use here?
It’s a Nord Lead 2. Live, I’m using a Nord Lead 2X.
The song “Spark” continues with a technically terrifying melodic figure. Back in 2013 you told me, “The pianist part of me has to practice hard to satisfy the composer part of me. So that’s how I write!” This sounds like that kind composition, where you have an idea and it then develops, mutates, and expands harmonically for nine minutes!
Yes. [She goes to the piano and demonstrates how the song develops and changes.] One of the most challenging things in this song is that it’s in 9/8. I’ve written a couple of pieces in 9/8, like my song “Move” from my second album. And also “XYZ,” the opening track from the first album we did together as a trio. Because I just happened to write some other songs in 9/8, I didn’t want this one to sound the same. You really have to work on the groove in 9/8 to get something different. For instance, like where to put the accents in the bass line. You can think of the nine beats in 9/8 like four and five, five and four, three - three - three, two - three - two - two, two - two - three - two, and so on. There are so many ways to feel it, so I was just trying to find a way that we hadn’t really worked on before. That’s what Simon and I really talked about, and I think we found a fresh version of nine for the trio on this one.
This album seems to marry myriad sounds and musical styles. Take a song like “In a Trance,” with its rhythmic virtuosity and almost progressive sense of fanfare and drama. The last time we spoke, you mentioned how much you admired the work of Frank Zappa. What other artists and music do you have an affinity for?
King Crimson. Also many of the classical composers like Rachmaninoff and Bach have influenced me, because they really know how to compose. They understand how to use the maximum potential of the piano, because they have a deep understanding of the instrument.
“In a Trance” also has a compelling, continuous dialogue between you and your rhythm section. When you’re writing a song like this, can you hear this kind of call-and-response as you are composing?
Yes; especially the intro. [She plays the song’s intro on the piano.] It’s a lot of “small fives,” but it’s in 4/4. A lot of people think it’s in an odd meter, but it’s not. It’s all 4/4.
I was going to say I was surprised you wrote a song in 4/4. I didn’t think that was possible!
[Laughs.] Yes. And when I came up with this riff, I thought it would be great if Simon could play the same feel, playing little 5/16ths with me. When I first came up with the intro, Simon said to me, “What do you want me to play?” I replied, “I want you to play this rhythm with me.” And he said, “What?!” [Laughs.] There were actually a lot of moments like that on the album. But I was hearing how those hits would fit together.
Spark is a fitting title for the album. Each of your songs has a story and spark to it. It’s a lost art in this era of streaming playlists to keep someone’s concentration for ten songs or more across an entire album. But you do that here, because each song is a surprise of its own.
I really wanted the whole story—the songs and the album—to be very narrative. One song follows the next. So when you feel a “Spark” then you get “In a Trance.” Then you want to be “Taken Away” to the “Wonderland.” Then you “Indulge Yourself” in the “Wonderland.” Then here comes “Dilemma:” Should I stay here or go back, or go ahead? Then one day you “Wake Up and Dream” about everything that happened to you and whether it was true. That’s kind of the end of the movie or the play, of the imaginary soundtrack to the imaginary film. And then there’s the song called “All’s Well,” which is kind of a credit roll, like at the end of a movie. I really wanted the whole story to be a narrative like that.
The chords on the “blowing section” of this one reminded me of songs such as “Red Clay” by Freddie Hubbard, or “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb. Those kinds of old-school, classic, jazz cycle progressions are so much fun to play over.
Oh yeah. [She goes to the piano and plays the solo section chords.] That’s true. Of course, I’m very influenced by Freddie: Who’s not influenced by him? I’m also a big fan of [saxophonist] Sonny Stitt, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, and Thelonious Monk.
In the press materials for the new album you say, “When I perform, I always want to go somewhere that I haven’t discovered.” How do you push yourself to find these new places?
By playing with musicians who are never satisfied with where they are. That always makes me go for more. For me, Anthony and Simon are just the complete package. They have it all, but they are never satisfied. They always want more, always want to grow, and are always looking for challenges. Their attitudes are amazing. Touring and being close to musicians who have that kind of inspiring attitude of course makes me grow up. Playing the same songs over and over again makes me grow up, too. When you keep playing the same songs the same way, of course you get bored. So you always want to find a new way to approach a song differently each time you play it.
You find a way to always be excited about the same material. Just like Bob Dylan!
You play around with changes in sound, intensity, drama, and orchestration. For example, in the song “Take Me Away” the bombast of the previous song is replaced with a delicate piano and bass line. It evokes a sense of journey—new lands, new sounds, and new textures.
Yeah. Actually what I was seeing in this intro was a rainy day, like raindrops. As if you look at the outside and it’s raining. [She plays the repeated notes of the intro on the piano and starts to narrate over the music.] Then you see the raindrops. [She then plays the descending melody in the intro.] That was the kind of feeling I first had when I wrote it.
Even on a song like “Take Me Away,” with its sense of longing and exploration, there is an inherent rhythmic pocket. How does a song that starts with dreamy raindrops descend into such a dirty groove?
Yeah. [Laughs.] That’s kind of like the path to be taken away. That’s the kind of expression I was looking for in that song. And then, here comes Anthony Jackson! When I was mixing “Take Me Away” and “Indulgence,” I had so much fun removing Simon and myself from the mix and just soloing Anthony, thinking, “Yes! That’s the Anthony Jackson that I fell in love with.” It’s just amazing. He’s such a groove maker.
I notice a technique you often use is the shifting harmonies under a repeated melody or passage; it’s fascinating and unsettling at the same time. The idea that one part stays the same, while another twists and turns.
Well, I always want the three of us to take turns in different roles, like who’s playing the lead melody.
There’s a great, funky piano solo on this one as well. Can you talk about some of your favorite keyboard artists from across the musical spectrum in funk and blues?
That’s what I thought when I heard it. You played some decidedly “Tee-ish” chords in the solo.
Yeah. George Duke is another one. I’m a huge fan of his. Also, Joe Zawinul.
Talking about shifts in sounds, your song “Wonderland” starts with an unaccompanied drum figure by Phillips on the octobans [tube tom-tom drums]. I hadn’t seen that word since Stewart Copeland popularized them with the Police back in the 1980s. Did you specify on the music for Simon to actually play the octobans?
Yes. I can’t wait for the drum manufacturer Tama to see him playing this piece! I would always hear Simon play a particular figure in sound check and I just heard a certain pitch to it. It was A, B, C# and D. I thought, “If I write the melody with that pitch, Simon can play the melody!” I just love the sound of the octobans so much; they almost sound like a high-pitched timpani. So I wrote the entire melody out [she demonstrates the melody on piano], only using four notes. When Simon looked at the sheet music, he said, “Am I playing this?” And I replied, “Yes, you are!” [Laughs.]
The groove on “Indulgence” is dirty and slow. It evokes the kind of late nights that David Bowie referred to as “serious moonlight.” What is this one about for you?
I wanted to express the feeling of being drawn into something; of indulging in something and not being able to stop. I really enjoy the space in this song, especially after playing a lot of songs with busy riffs and tight figures. I really like the looseness of this one.
Your song “What Will Be, Will Be” has an almost New Orleans stop-time feel to it. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I really wanted Simon to start this one with a [New Orleans] second-line kind of feel. I just heard that in my head when I composed the line from the song. I just heard that as a groove.
“Wake Up and Dream” is a complete departure from everything before it on the album. There’s a stark, plaintive quality to this one that evokes some of [pianist] Bill Evans’ most poignant recordings. Who are some of your favorite proponents of solo jazz piano?
That’s a good question. I’d say Art Tatum. I think I listened to his solo recordings the most out of all the jazz pianists.
You call the album closer “All’s Well” the “album’s end credit sequence.” And it sounds just like the title describes. How did this one come to fruition?
Well, the handclapping intro on the song wasn’t there from the beginning. We usually go on the road and play the songs before we record, like [Frank] Zappa style! So I was actually playing these pieces for three weeks at different shows before we recorded them. First, I wanted Simon to start the song, and I asked him just to play a groove and then we’d come in with a big intro. Then he introduced me to this kind of tribal rhythm from some islands in Africa, and I thought, “That could work.” So I started to memorize that rhythm, clapping along to it live, and the audience really loved it. My piano mics pick up all of the sounds around the piano and actually captured that sound of my hands clapping. So it just became part of the song.