TO Jazz Festival: Interview with Hiromi – blogUT

What: The Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi
When: June 28th @ 8PM
Where: Nathan Phillips Square, buy tickets online at Ticketmaster or arrive very early and purchase tickets at the door.
More Information: Check out this recent performance video for a taste of the music or go to Stanley Clarke’s website for a sampling of the new Stanley Clarke Band album released on June 15th.

On Wednesday, I caught up with the great jazz pianist, Hiromi, for a telephone interview, before her performance in Toronto at the Jazz Festival with Stanley Clarke on June 28th at Nathan Phillips Square. Hiromi recently recorded the wonderful jazz trio album “Jazz in the Garden” with Stanley Clarke, one of the best albums of 2009, and now they are touring together over the summer.

When you hear Hiromi playing impressive stride piano, you would never guess that her small hands can only stretch an octave: it certainly doesn’t sound like it! How does she do it? “It requires a lot of practicing to be able to play the right notes but I want to hear the sound and so I work hard to hear the sound.”

Hiromi has studied under Ahmad Jamal and Richard Evans, and had performed with both the Czech Philharmonic and Chick Corea at age 17. She has distinguished herself on the jazz scene with her impressively high energy, fast-paced, and always musical piano playing. When talking about her performing, she says “Whenever I have a great performance, my brain is so tired and that’s a good sign.”

Alex (BlogUT): When did you start playing the piano and what got you interested in the piano, in particular?
Hiromi: I was six years old and my mother took me to a piano lesson. None of my family are musical; they’re just regular people. My mom just thought music brings joy to life so she wanted me to play something but she never thought I would do it professionally! She just wanted me to have fun and I just fell in love with it.

Alex (BlogUT): Are you classically trained? How did you make the transition from classical to jazz?
Hiromi: I went to classical piano lessons but my very first piano teacher that I studied with happened to be a big jazz fan. She always had jazz LPs playing and so I was always listening to it. She had me listening to Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson, and I thought what is this? She explained how they improvise. I couldn’t really understand the music at the time but it just made me so happy. It was my first experience of dancing to music. I felt a swing somehow and was just jumping around – I was 8 – and it brought a lot of joy. So I started to imitate what they were doing and started to improvise on classical music.

Alex: Who are your influences?
Hiromi: It’s not only pianists that have influenced me. I’ve been influenced by so many different type of musicians. One of my favourites is Frank Zappa. I love King Crimson, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Ahmad Jamal, and Jeff Beck. I like everything that Bach wrote. I just think it’s so beautiful. When I play his pieces, I feel that all my ten fingers have to wake up, and I really have to understand that I have ten fingers to play the piano.

Alex: A lot of professional pianists have experienced repetitive strain injury from their playing. What, if anything, do you do to avoid injury when playing?
Hiromi: I do a lot of stretches and I do yoga. Whenever I have a show I always take a long bath after the show so that the muscles that I used get healed from the day and from the performance. I do a lot of things to maintain my body.

Alex: How do you play stride piano with such small hands?
Hiromi: People are always surprised by how small my hands are. I can’t reach a tenth. I can play an octave but that’s the widest I can play. It is hard. It requires a lot of practicing to be able to play the right notes, but I want to hear the sound and so I work hard to hear the sound.

Alex: What is it like playing with a bassist like Stanley Clarke, who is often more of a melodic or harmonic force than just at the bottom of the piece playing the bass line?
Hiromi: He is so unique and original. It’s amazing to play with somebody who has had such a huge personality in his playing for many many decades. It’s like the best school I can be at. I’m learning many things just playing with him. I have a lot of respect for him and it’s amazing. I don’t know how he found me. He just called me up and said he was making a trio record and wanted me to be part of it. I was so honoured and thrilled and I said I would love to; I had no reason to say no and it happened. I thought “wow, experience!”. So we did the trio record a year ago with Lenny White on drums. He wanted me to be part of another album again so I felt honoured again and we did it again with the Stanley Clarke Band.

Alex: What are your top five desert island albums?
Hiromi: That’s impossible to answer! Music is such an interesting thing. It depends on your mood every day every week or every month. I don’t know. I think I’d just be cheeky and bring my iPod.

Alex: How do you make jazz accessible for young people?
Hiromi: I’m still young (born in 1979)! When you see somebody playing that’s your age, I think it’s easier to get interested. But Stanley still attracts young people because he’s still young inside; he stays young. The important thing is always trying to explore something new and just be adventurous with your music because that’s what you’re all about when you’re young. And Ahmad Jamal, he’s, I think, 80 years old now, and he never stopped pushing the edge and that’s amazing. He’s still like a really young boy in his playing: always adventurous, looking for things, and that’s the attitude I want to have. When I’m 70 or 80, I want to be as young at heart as he is, always trying to be edgy and trying to find something risky and adventurous, at least in my music.

Alex: How do you go about arranging pieces? I really liked your arrangement of “I’ve Got Rhythm”.
Hiromi: When I arrange, I just keep playing the pieces over and over just trying to find a home for myself in it, and find that this is how I want to play this piece. I just try to find it and so I play it over and over again for years.

Alex: Can you talk a bit about improvising?
Hiromi: When i improvise, it requires the maximum focus of the day, trying to think about what it is that I really want to say. It’s just like having a conversation. In a conversation, you have to choose the right words; in music, you have to choose the right notes, the right phrase. It’s about looking for a perfect way of saying, telling and expressing what you’re feeling. It’s so easy to say something meaningless and so important to tell something that you really mean. So it requires so much focus to try to express yourself and what you have in your mind.

It is a lot of work and it really tires my brain! Whenever I have a great performance, my brain is so tired and that’s a good sign. It’s just like having a great conversation with people: you get into it and are so focussed. You feel like “wow, that was a good chat” and you feel so exhausted when you get off the phone or when you leave the person. That’s how I want to feel when i finish playing: exhausted.

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