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Art Hirahara: Bowing Before Giants

The jazz latecomer gets inspired during his first Before & After listening session

Art Hirahara
Pianist and composer Art Hirahara (photo: Sara Pettinella)

With the release in 2000 of his impressive first album, Edge of This Earth, pianist Art Hirahara made it clear that he saw himself as a composer as much as a player. Like so many ambitious young musicians from the Bay Area, the San Jose native had lit out for Oberlin. Looking to explore the intersection of technology and composition, he earned a B.M. in electronic and computer music. But he also found a vehicle for his love of improvisation when he was introduced to jazz by longtime Oberlin professor Neal Creque, a brilliant but undersung pianist/composer from the Virgin Islands who made his mark on the New York Latin jazz and studio scenes in the late 1960s.

After earning an M.F.A. in jazz piano performance from CalArts, Hirahara returned to the Bay Area in the late ’90s and made a powerful impression working in an array of creatively charged settings that often intersected with the progressive cadre around Asian Improv aRts. Among them: drummer Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra, a collaboration with harmolodic saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, and the pan-Asian percussion group Asian Crisis, which the pianist co-founded.

While he’s maintained some deep Bay Area ties since moving to New York City in 2003—particularly through drummer Akira Tana’s jazz-meets-Japanese-folk band Otonowa—Hirahara’s gradually established himself as a savvy bandleader with a melodically inviting and stylistically broad body of originals via a series of well-conceived albums for Posi-Tone. Working with a superlative cast of collaborators, he’s increasingly found inspiration on his travels, particularly time spent in Japan, influences evident on 2017’s Central Line and 2018’s Sunward Bound, quartet sessions featuring Linda May Han Oh, Rudy Royston, and Donny McCaslin. Hirahara’s first Before & After listening session took place at this writer’s home in West Berkeley, Calif.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks mentioned below:

1. Mulgrew Miller
“Broad Street” (Time and Again, Landmark). Miller, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Tony Reedus, drums. Recorded in 1991.

BEFORE: The first thing I would say, it starts in this groove that’s unexpected, and then goes into swing and feels really good. It’s sort of a reggae groove, which makes me wonder if it’s Monty Alexander. I’m not very familiar with his work, but I know he’s Jamaican and that he swings his ass off. There’s something about the composition that reminds me of Cedar Walton’s style, the extended vamp that goes into a swing section, which makes it super-fun to solo on.

AFTER: I first learned about Mulgrew Miller from my first jazz piano teacher, Neal Creque, an amazing musician who played on several Grant Green Blue Note albums. The first artist he told me to check out was Mulgrew. He said the thing he loved about Mulgrew’s playing was that his solos flowed like water. I saw Mulgrew perform a few times and he was always great. Here, the reggae groove is unexpected. It was pretty hip.

Check the price of Time & Again on Amazon!

2. Renee Rosnes
“Goodbye Mumbai” (Written in the Rocks, Smoke Sessions). Rosnes, piano; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Steve Wilson, alto sax. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I definitely hear a Monk influence in the composition. But who’s the pianist? Could that be Steve Wilson on alto? I like this instrumentation with the vibes. That’s a really hip tune.

AFTER: I had the opportunity to play with Steve Wilson, who’s amazingly easy to work with and a great musician. Renee is something else. She was one of the first people to play the new Steinway at Mezzrow. I really like her relaxed feel and the cyclical harmonic motion of her tune. In my own composing I like to explore similar concepts.

Check the price of Written in the Rocks on Amazon!

3. Bud Powell
“Dance of the Infidels” (The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume One, Blue Note). Powell, piano; Roy Haynes, drums; Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Fats Navarro, trumpet; Tommy Potter, bass. Recorded in 1949.

BEFORE: I know it’s Bud Powell. I forgot the name of this tune [sings along with the head]. I love his intricate way of weaving melodies that are angular yet smooth, with great voice-leading. There’s still something about his playing that’s mysterious to me, that I can’t decode, because he’s such a genius.

AFTER: The thing about that era of recording is that they were forced to worry about the amount of time of a piece because of the medium of vinyl. They were all so concise in their statements. All the soloists really tell a story in a short amount of time. These days, that art is a little bit lost. At certain points in my studies, I’ve practiced Bud Powell pieces, but not as part of the usual repertoire that I play. I should start!

Check the price of The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume One on Amazon!

4. Eastern Rebellion
“Dear Ruth” (Simple Pleasure, MusicMasters Jazz). Cedar Walton, piano; Billy Higgins, drums; David Williams, bass; Ralph Moore, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: The lightness of the touch makes me think it might be Kenny Barron, but I don’t know this record. I like all of the little details. The left-hand playing, the voicings right when you least expect them. Also, the elegance of the playing. The rhythm section is really locked in together, almost completing each other’s sentences. There’s a tightness and a looseness.

AFTER: Now thinking about the harmonic movement, it’s definitely a very Cedar-sounding composition. I never got a chance to see him play and I regret that. But in my repertoire I play some of his tunes, and really identify with his harmonic movement, and his use of structure in order to create and leave space for the soloist.

Check the price of Simple Pleasure on Amazon!

5. Vijay Iyer Trio
“Lude” (Accelerando, ACT Music). Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Could it be Ethan Iverson? The sound of the recording is very upfront, in-your-face, and very dry. It’s an interesting trend in recording modern groups that has to do with rock production values. This kind of grooving bass line that goes throughout the tune has some influence coming from Steve Coleman and the way he uses patterns. But I also hear some free tonality that reminds me of Ornette Coleman.

AFTER: Ah, Vijay. I first met him when I moved back to San Francisco in 1996 or so. We were both part of this Michael Wolff jazz piano competition, which he ended up winning. That was really at the beginning of my career playing jazz. I’ve met up with him over the years, and he’s a super-sweet guy. I respect what he’s doing as far as bringing these highly developed concepts into his compositions and playing. Obviously, this trio is very tight. I’ve played with Marcus a few times too, and he’s a strong anchor for the group. He really allows Vijay to take his explorations, and there will always be a grounded feeling because of Marcus’ pulse. I would say my direction is very different [laughs]. When I write music and play music, I hope to get away from an intellectual sound. My concept is coming from more … well, for me, swing is really important, and that the music feels good to the listener is also important.

Check the price of Accelerando on Amazon!

6. Tommy Flanagan
“All Day Long” (The Tokyo Recital, Pablo). Flanagan, piano; Keter Betts, bass; Bobby Durham, drums. Recorded in 1975.

BEFORE: I can’t tell you who it is, but it’s an older style, very orchestral and driving. Almost sounds like it could have been Ray Brown on bass, that pushing forward momentum, like he would do with Oscar Peterson, but this is definitely not Oscar Peterson. The composition lent itself to these big dynamic crescendos and sudden drops in dynamics. It’s definitely a composition of that era but I don’t know the tune.

AFTER: Tommy Flanagan, I think, is an underrecognized pianist. I love his great feel and think he encapsulates beautifully the trends of jazz in his time. Some people overly focus on his playing on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but he was so much more than that. He truly was a jazz giant.

Check the price of The Tokyo Recital on Amazon!

7. Shamie Royston
“Lovely Day” (Beautiful Liar, Sunnyside). Royston, piano; Rudy Royston, drums; Josh Evans, trumpet; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Is this a Bill Withers tune? “Lovely Day”? This is a really hip arrangement. The bass playing is so strong, it makes me wonder if the bassist is the leader. I really like the arrangement. When you’re taking an old pop tune and rearranging it, there’s always the danger of overdoing it, making it more complex than it needs to be. This arrangement had a really nice balance. That was cool.

AFTER: That’s great. I’ve got to check out more of her stuff! It makes sense that Rudy would be married to such a great player and arranger. Rudy himself is an amazing player, so versatile. You could hear how tasteful he is. I think he’s still underrecognized. I love having him play my music. He can switch gears so effortlessly. He’ll bring exactly the right feel that I didn’t know was the right feel until he played it.

Check the price of Beautiful Liar on Amazon!

8. The Horace Silver Quintet
“Horace-Scope” (Horace-Scope, Blue Note). Silver, piano; Junior Cook, tenor saxophone; Blue Mitchell, trumpet; Gene Taylor, bass; Roy Brooks, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: I love this Blue Note quintet sound. Could it be Horace? It sounds compositionally very much like Horace. He’s coming out of a very blues-based sound, but his use of rhythmic figures and space and vamps actually reminds me of Cedar, though of course Horace came first.

AFTER: The quintet format is a good balance: a small group, but with a larger palette of sound. I love the intimacy and conversation that occurs in a piano trio, but with two horns, one can explore harmony and generate more energy with the melodic line, as a horn is a strong way of stating it. And with two horns you can also have counterpoint.

I’m an interesting case of a jazz pianist. I didn’t start off studying jazz, but my teacher growing up, Sue Shannon, taught improvisation and composition as well as classical music. A lot of musicians who get deep into jazz start by listening to old records. I started by improvising and composing and feel like I’m always catching up, learning the canon of jazz records.

Check the price of Horace-Scope on Amazon!

9. Billy Childs
“Dance of Shiva” (Rebirth, Mack Avenue). Childs, piano; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Is that Yosvany Terry? It’s interesting, one of the amazing things about being in New York is that you have all these world influences of music, smashing into jazz and becoming part of the language. That little section sounded very Indian, so maybe I’m mistaken about Yosvany. Super-grooving and super-tight.

AFTER: That was Steve! I should have known. Billy is an amazing musician. When I grow up, I want to be like him! What’s interesting about this is that it’s very through-composed. There are some sections that repeat, but a lot of stuff only happens once. It’s not a “head, blow, and head” kind of form. It takes the listener on a journey through the way that it’s written. In my own writing I’m trying to get away from the head, solo, head format too. What’s so cool is that there are all kinds of things going on in the piece that I wouldn’t have expected from Billy.

Check the price of Rebirth on Amazon!

10. Jaki Byard
“Giant Steps” (Here’s Jaki!, New Jazz). Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: That must be Oscar Peterson. That was really fun, but maybe it wasn’t Oscar. Interesting hearing someone from a different harmonic background trying to play “Giant Steps.” Right at the start it sounded like Oscar, and then it changed and I started to doubt myself. Pretty ambitious to go double-time, doing that as a gesture to end the tune.

AFTER: Jaki Byard is another pianist that I need to check out more. I know about his huge impact in jazz education and would have loved to have studied with him, but I came to play jazz too late. I feel that I have so much to learn and it’s a lifelong process that will never end. That’s one thing that makes jazz such an amazing art form.

Check the price of Here’s Jaki! on Amazon!

11. Ahmad Jamal
“Island Fever” (In Search of Momentum [1-10], Dreyfus Jazz). Jamal, piano; Idris Muhammad, drums; James Cammack, bass. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: The extreme dynamics make me think it might be Ahmad Jamal, the sudden explosions and the light, contrasting lines. What a great trio! They can simmer and explore wherever they like to go. It must have been so fun to play in that group. He’s an example of somebody who can use the piano to its fullest effect, from the quietest quiet to the loudest loud. That’s something I need to practice. He plays very pianistically, something I hope to eventually master.

AFTER: There’s such a world of different ways of playing the piano. It’s truly mind-boggling. Because the piano is like an orchestra under your hands, you can state anything you can think of. It makes me realize how little I know and how vast the possibilities are to take the instrument to different places. After hearing all of this music, I want to go practice now!

Check the price of In Search of Momentum [1-10] on Amazon!

  Originally Published

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.