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Hiromi’s 10th album features the return of The Trio Project with contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips

All great human passions – whether romantic, creative, inventive, or transformative – begin with a single spark. On her tenth album as a leader, Japanese pianist/composer Hiromi traces the path of the flame ignited by that spark as it consumes and inspires. Over the course of nine expressively charged songs, the listener is carried away on an impassioned spiritual journey that might tell the story of a personal discovery, a love affair, or the creation of the music itself.

Spark showcases the always thrilling sound of Hiromi’s Trio Project with her most narratively sweeping and emotionally overflowing set of music to date. The pianist finds her own spark in her interaction with her triomates of the last five years, contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson (Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Chick Corea, The O’Jays) and drummer Simon Phillips (The Who, David Gilmour, Judas Priest, Toto, Jack Bruce).

Since forming in 2010, The Trio Project has explored the richness of the inner voice on their 2011 debut, Voice; the dynamic, unceasing motion of time on their 2013 follow-up, Move; and captured the feeling of their electrifying live performances on 2014’s brilliant Alive. With Spark, the trio again exemplifies why DownBeat magazine has called them “one of the most exciting groups working in any genre today,” with the leader’s effusive, heartfelt virtuosity supported by Jackson’s vigorously fluid basslines and Phillips’ ability to be simultaneously propulsive and witty behind the kit.

“Playing with this trio is like a never-ending adventure,” Hiromi says. “They never play safe and they always look for new things; we always play as if this is our first and last show. With how much passion and love we feel for the music, every show I feel a spark.”

The recording begins with faint, delicate solo piano, lending a sense of magical anticipation that Hiromi likens to opening the first page of a book, “the moment that you bring yourself into the story.” A slowly dawning wash of keyboards ushers in the title track’s buoyant groove, illustrating the very moment of spark or inspiration that sets the whole album in motion.

“In a Trance” is anything but hypnotic. The fleet and fiery tune, accented by Latin rhythms, depicts the next stage of the album’s nascent passion as the spark catches hold and becomes all-consuming. The frantic pace spurs stunning and heart-racing solos from both Hiromi and Phillips. At its most powerful, the trance can carry you to another place, as on the next piece, the wondrous “Take Me Away.”

“When I perform, I always want to go to somewhere that I haven’t discovered,” Hiromi explains. “A new place, a new zone in the heart that I’ve never been. New things require more risk and can be scary, but because you’ve never seen it before it can also be extremely beautiful and that’s always what I’m looking for.”

The destination in this case is “Wonderland,” that place on the border of imagination only visited by those brave and adventurous enough to discover it. The piece is based around the distinctive sound of Phillips’ octobans, a set of high-pitched, melodically-tuned tom-toms. The drummer thus establishes the tune’s celebratory melody with its hint of Afro-Caribbean rhythm before it’s picked up by the piano and gradually driven into a harder, rock-influenced churn before Hiromi responds with soulful flourishes.

“When you’re in Wonderland, you indulge yourself and can really forget time,” says Hiromi about the next piece, “Indulgence.” She continues, “It can go really fast or really slow, and for that moment you’re the master of time. That’s the feeling that I really wanted to capture.” Here the pace slows to a free-floating stroll interrupted by sudden, darting digressions. Jackson is at his most elastic throughout, adding immensely to a feeling of distorted time that even Dalí would appreciate.

Urgency returns with a vengeance on “Dilemma,” which Hiromi jokingly describes as the price paid for indulgence. “You stop and think, ‘Should I go farther or step back?’ This song is very dramatic to express the sense of going back and forth in your mind.” With its constantly shifting sections and bristling 11/8 tempo, the tune vividly embodies that sense of tension and struggle, with the pianist’s most dark-hued solo of the set responding to its roiling, tempestuous beat.

The mood is eased by the playful, funky groove of “What Will Be, Will Be,” which echoes Doris Day’s familiar advice about maintaining a laissez-faire attitude and letting fate take over. That brisk jaunt gives way to the hushed, introspective elegant of “Wake Up and Dream,” a solo piano piece that finds Hiromi finally emerging from her trance, only to stay inside the dream state while wide awake. Finally, the trio’s handclaps state the valedictory beat of “All’s Well,” an optimistic conclusion that Hiromi sees as the album’s end credit sequence.

Having traveled through the varied and wide-ranging stages of Hiromi’s inspiration, it’s as if she’s pulled the curtain back on her own creative process to reveal the spark that’s been evident since she first emerged on the scene with her 2003 Telarc debut, Another Mind. Since then, Hiromi has been mentored and praised by such greats as Ahmad Jamal and Chick Corea while garnering a host of awards in North America and Japan and forging her own effervescent, instantly recognizable voice.

“Life is full of continuous sparks,” concludes Hiromi, whose ten albums certainly bear out that contention. “It can be anything that you can feel passionate about, but when that huge spark happens, the story begins.”