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The Education of Hiromi

Hiromi with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White

There are two Hiromis. The one who sits down to talk to JazzTimes is soft-spoken and reserved, self-deprecatingly describing herself as “the little Japanese girl” and confessing to the culture shock of moving to a country where introductions often involve hugging and kissing rather than bowing. This is the Hiromi who, according to an article in the Japan Times, once heard a cell phone in her audience and quickly emulated the ringtone’s chord pattern on her keyboard to spare the offender from embarrassment. This is the Hiromi who habitually apologizes even when she knows she’s done nothing wrong, only because, she explains, it’s in her cultural DNA to do so.

Only those who meet her offstage experience that Hiromi. To the rest, she’s a wild woman, a fleet-fingered, hyper-animated dynamo whose stage persona is so hopelessly engaging that, at Manhattan’s Blue Note last October, she can’t help but draw gazes away from her far-better-known band mates: Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. Bolting upright from the piano stool, hunching over the keys, hair flying, face scrunching into a grimace, open-mouthed grin omnipresent as she alternately attacks and caresses her Yamaha grand, Hiromi Uehara, age 30, borders on the flamboyant. This is the Hiromi who reveals that her dream gig would be “to play with Frank Zappa, but he’s not here anymore” and who wonders if “Maybe it’s hard for people to believe that I do music seriously” because she always looks so damn happy when she performs.

Glimpses of the first Hiromi do manifest occasionally during her performance: head tilted back, eyes closed, the pianist turns briefly introspective, lost in the solitude and wistfulness of a ballad. She seeks grandeur from her instrument without losing sight of poise and modesty.

But that doesn’t last long. A lone, discordant chord is struck, the head jolts, the right arm swings back, crescendos ensue, the fingers take off, and soon she’s a Japanese Jerry Lee Lewis, bearing down on the 88s with a ferocious physicality rarely seen in jazz, especially from “little Japanese girls.”

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