Never one to take a safe, familiar route, pianist Hiromi (Uehara) has composed a classical quintet for her superb new album—performed by, well, a classical quintet. That’s to say that her keys merge with a standard string quartet (violinists Tatsuo Nishie and Sohei Birmann, violist Meguna Naka, cellist Wataru Mukai) to play a highly melodic four-part suite with complex arrangements, as well as five additional tracks. The “classical” in question is European classical, albeit with large jazz components.
First and foremost, all but one of the album’s nine tracks are intensely percussive and staccato. (The other, “Uncertainty,” is a mellifluous solo recital.) The effect tends to be less of Schumann and Brahms than, say, Penguin Café Orchestra or the theme from Downton Abbey. That said, there are delightful chamber-music moments in play: A third of the way through “The Unknown,” the suite’s second movement, Hiromi plays a series of flowing ascending chords, then allows pizzicato violins to scamper back down the scale as she doodles around them with single-note lines. On “11:49,” the strings come together to mark off a syncopation that ticks like the second hand on a stopwatch, then suddenly stops to let Hiromi imitate a decisive, if discordant, chime.
Each tune (again excepting “Uncertainty”) also leaves plenty of room for jazz-informed improvisations. Though the strings were ostensibly chosen for their facility with jazz language, in practice they merely accompany Hiromi’s jazz language, which is formidable. She plays giddy games with rhythm on “Isolation,” the suite’s opener; offers a thoughtfully energized counterstatement to the melancholia of the theme to “Drifters” (the third movement); and turns the wistfulness in the title of “Someday” into foot-stamping impatience.
Recorded while quarantining in Tokyo, Silver Lining Suite came about due to unique circumstances that make its music unlikely to enter Hiromi’s regular performing repertoire. It should, however, enter your listening one.