Hiromi: A Melodic (And Headbanging) Travelogue Her new album, Place To Be, was conceived as a journal in sound. In a solo performance, the energetic jazz pianist shows how she translates street scenes to melodies, with her typical effervescence.
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Hiromi: A Melodic (And Headbanging) Travelogue

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Hiromi: A Melodic (And Headbanging) Travelogue

(Soundbite of song, "Choux a la Creme")

GUY RAZ, host:

I'm whispering because behind me, you can hear Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi performing for us here in the studio. Right now, she is playing a composition she calls "Choux a la Creme." It's a musical homage to the sensation you get when eating a creampuff. Anyway, I'll keep quiet for the moment so you can hear more.

(Soundbite of song, "Choux a la Creme")

RAZ: Right now, Hiromi is leaning over the top of the piano, and she's reaching inside and pressing, literally pressing, on the bass strings. She's been called one of the most inventive jazz pianists on the scene, and her latest album is called "Place to Be."

(Soundbite of song, "Choux a la Creme")

RAZ: The composition is called "Choux a la Creme," and you can find it on Hiromi's new record. It's called "Place to Be."

Hiromi, welcome to the program.

Ms. HIROMI UEHARA (Pianist): Thank you very much for having me.

RAZ: I once saw Keith Jarrett perform, and I had front row seats, and I could see his hands, and I could see him talking to the piano, and it felt like you were speaking to the piano. I mean, you were literally speaking. Is that what you were doing?

Ms. UEHARA: Yeah, I do talk to the piano. You know, I have to be really best friend with my instrument. That's how I can really create the music together with my instrument.

RAZ: This composition is how you feel when you're eating a creampuff. So, I mean, you're describing it in sounds. How would you describe it in words?

Ms. UEHARA: Well, I was just walking down the street in France, and I was looking for a bakery, and when you're aiming for something that you love, you know, your happiness level just goes up every minute. And when I find a bakery, it steps up again, you know? Then, when I find the creampuff itself, I'm so happy. And when I have it, I'm fulfilled with happiness. And when it's gone, I'm sad. And it's quite an adventure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I'm wondering if that happens to you a lot. I mean, you travel all around the world, and you perform. A lot of the music on this album is inspired by the places that you've been. Of course, this last piece about the creampuff inspired by a visit to Paris. When you go to new places, do you sort of take in the scenery and think about how each place, each city, each street would sound on the piano?

Ms. UEHARA: Yes, I do, and sometimes, you know, without an effort, I just hear the music. You know, like for example, when I was in this beautiful place in Sicily, I was just walking down the street, and I heard the melody, and I had to take the notes. So I just write a travel journal in music instead of notes.

RAZ: What did Sicily sound like? Can you play a few seconds of that?

Ms. UEHARA: Yes.

(Soundbite of "Sicilian Blue")

Ms. UEHARA: And I just named it "Sicilian Blue" because I was so inspired by how blue the ocean was, and I mean, the sea was, and how blue the sky was.

RAZ: And that song can be found on your new album, "Place to Be." I want to hear another piece from the new record, but before you play it, I want you to tell me about it. The song is called "BQE," and that is, of course, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Can you tell me about that song?

Ms. UEHARA: Well, for me, that's a very special place. You know, it's I see the reality and fantasy exist together because, you know, it's always crazy, hectic drive way, and on the side, you can overlook the beautiful landscape of Manhattan, and almost everybody comes to New York to, you know, catch their dream. And when

RAZ: And you arrive at LaGuardia or at JFK, and you

Ms. UEHARA: You have to take that expressway, and when I'm on it, and I'm facing the reality, and on the side, there is a dream, and that really makes me think that when you want to catch a dream, you have to face the reality. And, you know, that highway really inspired me, and I wrote this song.

RAZ: Well, let's hear it. The piece is called "BQE," and it's Hiromi performing it. It's from her new record.

(Soundbite of song, "BQE")

RAZ: Incredible. There aren't enough words in the English language to really do justice to describe what I just saw. That's the pianist Hiromi, playing her composition, "BQE." She's here in the studio with me, and that song can be found on her new album, "Place To Be."

I'm wondering how audiences react when you perform because just sitting here in the studio watching you, jumping up and down, stomping your feet, I almost want to jump up there and join you, do audiences ever do that? I mean, do they ever just stand up and start dancing in the aisles?

Ms. UEHARA: They go pretty crazy sometimes, and I really enjoy that. You know, it's like, you know, I meet people at the age of, like, 70, 80 years old. They come to talk to me after the show, and I haven't screamed like that for ages.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UEHARA: And that made me so happy. You know, it's really because I put out all the emotions here, and, you know, for some people, it's quite surprising because I don't hide anything and just put everything out, and they receive it, and they put everything out, and it's beautiful.

RAZ: And I should mention that listeners who want to see one of those performances can actually watch it at our Web site, npr.org, where we've got video of you performing right here in Studio 4b.

Hiromi, you're from Japan. You studied music here at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. How did you begin to experiment with the piano in such an unconventional way?

Ms. UEHARA: I started playing the piano when I was six years old, and I was just very curious kid.

RAZ: You were playing standard classical composition.

Ms. UEHARA: Well, yes, but my very first piano teacher happened to be a huge fan of jazz music, and she introduced me to this beautiful record by Erroll Garner called "Concert By the Sea," and also Oscar Peterson's "We Get Requests," and I just started to imitate what they were doing, you know, just like learning new words, and I just really fell in love with how much freedom that music had.

RAZ: How important do you think the other sounds are that you build because it's not just the piano keys that you're striking, you're literally - you are plucking inside the piano. You're stomping your feet. You're talking, sometimes, sounds from deep down in your throat. That's all part of the sound.

Ms. UEHARA: Yeah, that's true. Well, I don't know. I guess I was very naughty kid, playing with it, you know, as much as I can because this was the most interesting, most attractive toy for me for a long time when I was a kid. You know, I didn't need any other toy to play with.

RAZ: I want to close with a piece I heard a few months ago, and we played it on this program. It's your version of "Pachelbel's Canon," and that's, of course, a well-worn piece of music, but your take, as we'll hear, is completely different. First, tell me how you decided to perform it the way you do.

Ms. UEHARA: The very first version that I heard of this tune was played by (unintelligible) in, like, harpsichord kind of. So I just, you know, I wanted to create that sound with, of course, a piano, just trying to find the sound, and I did find the sound, you know, using the metallic ruler inside of the piano.

RAZ: Literally putting a ruler into the piano.

Ms. UEHARA: Yeah.

RAZ: Sliding it into the strings inside the piano. And that has a result of

Ms. UEHARA: Harpsichord sound.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's pianist Hiromi. Her latest album is called "Place To Be," and she's going to leave us with "Pachelbel's Canon For Prepared Piano," and you can hear that performance in its entirety at our Web site, nprmusic.org.

Hiromi, thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. UEHARA: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Pachelbel's Canon For Prepared Piano")

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