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Hiromi: Return of Piano World Champion


The first 100 seconds of Spiral (Telarc), the third album by Hiromi, give the impression that the Japanese pianist might venture off into the ECM world of tranquility. In fact, the volume should be turned up to make out the gentle chords that she hangs freely in the air. But as the title cut nears the two-minute mark, the mood shifts: Hiromi guides her trio in a gentle waltz that leads to an odd-metered groove in which bassist Tony Grey’s upper register sounds a lot like a guitar. The transitions might not be drastic, but they hint at the sense of adventure that the Berklee grad packs into her music, never staying with one idea for too long.

“In the composing process, first I usually come up with one specific melody or riff, which is played again and again in different shapes through the song,” she says. “Sometimes I kind of put the melody in a hidden place, like a treasure search.” After two albums in as many years that showcased Hiromi’s astounding technique and a fondness for compositions with an art-rocker’s sense of transition, Spiral finds the 26-year-old pianist taking her approach to a level where her concept is finely tuned.

It helps that Grey and drummer Martin Valihora have been playing with her since 2003, developing a strong rapport throughout nearly constant performances in the United States, Europe and Asia. Night after night the trio began creating something that would become the theme that flows throughout Spiral. “I really wanted to focus on this three-piece orchestral concept. When we really focus on doing this process onstage, one note can take us anywhere,” Hiromi says. “And if one note starts to involve everybody in the concert hall, a big spiral is born and everybody lets their mind and body float in this spiral made by music.”

The solid lineup also inspired Hiromi to write with her bandmates in mind. “I really know what their strengths are and where they can really shine in the music,” she says. “It’s like writing a movie script after knowing who the cast will be.”

The album’s centerpiece, “Music for Three-Piece-Orchestra,” consists of four compositions that give all three players a chance to explore their melodic and rhythmic qualities by traveling over a wide terrain, from gentle and exploratory to fast and furious, often within the space of one track. For example, the final section, “Edge,” opens with a figure that could come from a piano concerto or a hyper version of Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle.”

Ahmad Jamal, who coproduced Hiromi’s debut album, Another Mind, is the inspiration for “Love and Laughter.” “He never stops creating new things, and his musicianship always encourages me to go wherever I want to pursue,” she says. True to her muse, the song works within a more traditional chord structure, eventually adding a twisted rhythm that is purely her own.

Like “Kung-Fu World Champion” on her sophomore album, Brain, Spiral’s “Return of Kung-Fu World Champion” is another dedication to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, whom the pianist admires for their focus and discipline. It’s also the only cut where she sticks predominantly to synthesizer, other than a few atmospheric washes on the title track. The keyboard’s slick tone is a little hard to take initially, but by the end of the tune the musical evocation of her heroes wins out.

Recorded in May 2005, Spiral captures the band whose music changes daily–by choice. “Every day, I’m telling my musicians to take risks,” she says. “I don’t want to play what we played yesterday. Even if it was something amazing. I’m always trying to find this new vision and new soundscape.”