Album of the Week 27-2016: Hiromi – Spark

So much girl power at the North Sea Jazz festival this year! Esperanza Spalding especially blew me away with her music meets performance art presentation of her excellent ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ album, but Hiromi wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t just her crazily accurate and sometimes warp-speed piano playing; her whole trio was on fire. Of course, she has enlisted the help of two cross-genre giants in the shape of drummer Simon Phillips and bassist – excuse me, contrabass guitarist – Anthony Jackson, but music history has proven time and time again that putting great musicians together doesn’t necessarily result in a great record. In the case of ‘Spark’, it does though.

Japanese Jazz – or Japanese music in general really – has a tendency to be excessively polished. And while I like my music a little on the clean side, the soul sometimes gets washed out in the process. Whether it’s the fact that she lives in America these days, I don’t know, but Hiromi’s found the balance between polish and structure on one side and wild abandon on the other. The former is quite clear in the very strongly composed melodic themes on this album, the latter in the improvisations by all three musicians involved.

Melodically, ‘Spark’ has a very dreamy, almost fairytale-like atmosphere. As band leader, Hiromi seems to make sure that the virtuosity of the entire trio doesn’t get in the way of those main melodies. Of course, Phillips’ powerhouse drumming and remarkable control over the strength of his hits plays a pivotal role in the album’s rhythmic strength – though I think his carefully crafted sound is the main merit of his presence here – but it never gets too busy. Jackson especially has no problem taking backseat to the composition, but then again: he’s a master of the groove, so why not use him as such?

In a way, the opening title track sums up the album quite well. After a slow fade-in, there’s an upbeat melody carrying the song before moving into more visceral improvisations that never go out of line. The rest of the record moves back and forth between relaxed (the almost Bluesy ‘Indulgence’, the seventies Herbie Hancock-esque ‘What Will Be, Will Be’) and propulsive (the choppy ‘Wonderland’, closing track ‘All’s Well’), sometimes even within the same song (the dramatic ‘Dilemma’). ‘Wake Up And Dream’ feels like a classical piano piece, while ‘Take Me Away’ is a special track; Jackson uses his instrument in an almost guitar-like fashion, after which the song moves through multiple hypnotizing climaxes.

Through several years of experience as a music journalist, I’ve grown a little suspicious of artists that are hyped. In case of Hiromi, it is fully justified. She can obviously play her heart out, but what made the attention last for the decade and a half that she’s been profesionally active now is that she’s able to channel that virtuosity into tunes that are crafted so well that you can call them songs. And that isn’t necessarily the case for Jazz artists. Also, she’s found the perfect people to accompany her in Jackson and Phillips. ‘Spark’ is easily Hiromi’s crowning achievement thus far and leaves a promising path open for the future.

Recommended tracks: ‘Spark’, ‘Dilemma’, ‘Take Me Away’

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