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In a world where the path to commercial success is to play it safe and keep faith in formula, it is only within jazz where being unpredictable is not only a virtue, but an expectation. Hiromi marks her first decade of music-making on her terrific ninth album, Move featuring her Trio Project with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips.
Reunited with Jackson and Phillips for a second outing after 2011's superb Voice, (Telarc, 2011) the two veteran musicians provide the Japanese pianist with a rhythm section that can not only keep up with her but push her in a way she wasn't by her Sonicbloom band. That is not to disparage the talents of drummer Martin Valihora and bassist Tony Grey, but different players bring different dynamics to a band and in Jackson and Phillips rhythm section, Hiromi's mash-up of post-bop, straight-ahead and rock styles come together in a blistering tour de force.
The majority of Hiromi's recordings are built around a concept and on Move, it's "Time in one day." Think of it not as much of a sequel to Time Control (Telarc, 2007), which focused on a similar theme and featured the ecletic/electric guitar stylings of Dave Fiuczynski, but as an advancement of those themes with the soloing no longer between her piano and Fiuczynski's guitar as it is with Phillips' drums.
Phillips' background is rooted in rock (Toto, The Who, Judas Priest, David Gilmour) and he brings that attitude to his timekeeping, but that doesn't mean he can't swing. Phillips can make it sound pretty when the moment calls for it, but his ferocious approach does take some getting used to. There are traces of Tony Williams and Steve Gadd in the power displays of Phillips as he is given plenty of solo space and he doesn't squander it. Holding down the bass chores, Jackson is more traditional in his role than his partners, but they also serve those who sit back and go about their business with cool professionalism.
"Move" begins with the a note being repeated until Phillips and Jackson jump in and off we go for 8:34 as it twists and turns in a knotty, intricate and difficult composition. It's exhausting, but in the way a thrill ride at an amusement park is. The moments of power and glory are matched by quieter ones that are graceful and subtle such as "Brand New Day." That's what Move is: an audio aerobic work out with moments of kinetic, frenetic movement followed by time to cool down and cool out a bit. At times there wasn't enough of a blend between the two on Voice and Hiromi strikes a happy balance here.
The "Escapism" suite ("Reality," "Fantasy," "In Between") is the centerpiece of a nearly 70-minute recording. Everything that either impresses or infuriates Hiromi's fans and critics can be found here. As an artist with supreme confidence in herself, it's doubtful whether Hiromi herself gives much thought to how her compositions are received. Calling it jazz doesn't quite seem to fit, but calling it rock doesn't do it either.
One way to look at what Hiromi and company are doing is to equate what they're trying with another band they seemingly have little in common with. Take Rush, the Canadian power rock trio, and swap out Alex Liefson's guitar for Hiromi's piano, sub-in Phillips for drummer Neil Peart and ditch Geddy Lee's vocals but hand the bass duties to Jackson and the fundamentals are pretty much the same except now this is a power jazz trio.
Move operates on an entirely different level from Hiromi's previous releases. It is less exploratory, yet it never plays it safe and retains her highly developed sense of fun. Are there are moments when she needs to throttle back just a bit? Sure, as her synthesizer solos are more about sound effects than saying anything bold or particularly innovating, but carping on that is like griping Lebron James isn't as exciting executing a jump shot as a slam dunk. Even a fan will find moments where the wall of sound approach of Hiromi and co-producer Michael Bishop is a bit loud or showy for the sake of showmanship. That is part of what the Trio Project is about; combining complexity with technical brilliance, but never losing sight of the fun aspect. "One size fits all" doesn't work for socks and it sure doesn't apply here.
For those who've been along for the ride that began with the debut of Another Mind (Telarc, 2003) this represents an another incredibly inspired stop in Uehara's decade-long pursuit of innovation and excellence. Not everyone will understand or enjoy what she is trying to do, but those who punched their tickets a decade ago will likely consider Move an early contender for Album of the Year. It certainly belongs in the conversation of whatever albums are.
Track Listing: Move: Brand New Day; Endeavor; Rainmaker; Suite Escapism: Reality; Suite Escapism: Fantasy; Suite Escapism; In Between; Margarita!; 11:49 PM
Personnel: Hiromi Uehara: piano, keyboards; Anthony Jackson: contrabass guitar; Simon Phillips: drums
Record Label: Telarc Records
Style: Modern Jazz