When she recorded her solo piano debut, Place to Be, in 2009, Hiromi was on the eve of her 30th birthday. She realized that the album would offer a snapshot of the chapter just ending, the ways in which her experiences and personal growth had shaped her sound over the course of her 20s. She decided then that she would revisit the solo format at least once a decade, building a sonic portrait of her evolution and artistry.
Ten years later, the prolific pianist goes it alone once again on the stunning new album Spectrum, a dazzling evocation of the vibrant array of colors that imbue her music. Due for release October 4, 2019 on Telarc, a division of Concord Records, Spectrum celebrates the maturity and depth that have enriched Hiromi’s composing and playing over the course of her 30s, years in which she’s crisscrossed the globe thrilling audiences and embarked on collaborations with some of jazz’s most inventive artists, including Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Michel Camilo, Anthony Jackson, Simon Phillips, Steve Smith, Akiko Yano and Edmar Castañeda.
“The sound of a pianist changes with age and with every experience in life,” Hiromi says. “I wanted to set these milestones so that I can see from the outside how I’ve changed and grown. When I recorded Place To Bemy goal was recording the sound of my 20s; now I wanted to record the sound of my 30s.”
As she began to reflect back on the successful and rewarding years since her last solo outing, Hiromi quickly began to focus on the theme of colors and how they manifest in her music. That concept has always been central to her approach, from her earliest studies as a young prodigy.
“My first piano teacher always taught me to see colors through music,” she recalls. “When she wanted me to play something expressive or fiery, she colored the score paper with red pencil; when she wanted me to play something melancholic or sad, she would color my score with blue pencil. I thought it was fascinating because the piano itself is mostly black and white – the keys, the finish – but it can create so many colors.”
The full range of hues tumble together in a prismatic whirl on the album’s mesmerizing opening track, “Kaleidoscope.” Beginning with cyclical patterns reminiscent of minimalists like Philip Glass, the piece rapidly ripples outwards, the patterns expanding and transforming at the pace of the composer’s dizzying imagination. A similar approach marks the striking title tune, in which Hiromi introduces a dramatic central motif, then spins out a breathtaking series of variations, each viewing the theme through a different colored lens.
The achingly delicate “Whiteout” was born in a blizzard, and gorgeously captures the surreal hush and crystalline beauty of a layer of wandering through a blanket of new fallen snow. The piece’s wondrous elegance calls to mind the vivid impressionism of classical composers like Ravel or Debussy. “I remember walking on a street full of snow, and I just heard that song in my head,” Hiromi says. “Seeing everything covered in white felt really strange, like I was the only person in the city. I didn’t really have to think or try to create that song; it just came to me.”
Hiromi’s playfully funky side emerges on the gritty, groovy “Yellow Wurlitzer Blues” – and no wonder given the song’s origins. “Whenever I have a little drink I feel like playing music,” Hiromi laughs. “But I can’t carry a piano around like a guitar or a trumpet. I was telling the owner of the bar that I go to that I really wanted to play, and the next time I walked in he’d bought a yellow Wurlitzer for me.” The instrument is now a focal point for casual outings, where Hiromi inevitably encourages her friends – and anyone else who happens to be out for a night on the town – to join her in singing an improvised blues.
“Of course they’re not all musicians so they don’t know how, but I always say anyone can sing blues,” she says. “People tend to be a bit drunk so they’re more open, and they start telling stories about whatever happened during their day. I’ve had some amazing, memorable nights just having fun and playing the blues.”
The heartfelt “Blackbird” is another favorite when Hiromi gathers with friends, but while she says she’s played the Beatles favorite countless times in private settings she’d never performed it in a formal concert setting. Spectrum provided the ideal opportunity to capture the song, which feels as intimate and personal here as it surely does when the pianist plays it for her loved ones. “Whenever I play that song I feel like I’m playing towards someone – not any particular someone, but towards one person. For me, that is a one on one song. It’s such a beautiful song.”
At first glance the title of “Mr. C.C.,” a play on Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” might suggest a tribute to one of Hiromi’s close collaborators, the legendary pianist Chick Corea. But one listen to the silent-era antics of the song and its true inspiration becomes immediately clear: the song is an imaginary score for a Charlie Chaplin film (“I guess the initials C.C. are for the geniuses,” she suggests).
Hiromi was introduced to Chaplin’s films while a student at Berklee College of Music, where she was asked to perform a live score for a silent comedy during a school event. “I was fascinated by how the music can change the image of the film,” she says. “Since then I’ve always wanted to write something for Charlie Chaplin because he’s a true genius and extremely inspirational.”
The introspective “Once In a Blue Moon” muses on the many times in her life that Hiromi feels that she’s experienced a brush with miraculous, those moments when a prayer seems to have been answered or that hope pulls her through a struggle. The title comes from a phrase that she became enchanted with when she discovered it while learning English. The album closes with the equally emotional “Sepia Effect,” which wistfully evokes the faded beauty of a favorite memory.
The album’s penultimate track is an epic reimagining of George Gershwin’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue,” which becomes a medley of unexpected classics involving the same color. After taking the Gershwin classic through a number of virtuosic transformations, Hiromi suddenly twists the piece into John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” – and then again into The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” It would be hard to imagine three more disparate artists, though each changed the landscape of popular music in their own unique an innovate fashion.
“When Coltrane’s music landed in this world, I’m sure it was as shocking as when Gershwin landed, and the same thing for The Who,” Hiromi says. “When I first listened to these artists it was a mind-blowing experience, so I wanted to put them together. Each color can be interpreted very differently, depending on who sees it, and each of these artists came up with a different image of ‘blue.’ By joining them together, I wanted to create my own version of ‘blue.’”
As a whole, Spectrum is a vibrant tour of the rainbow panorama of Hiromi’s sound; in contrast with Place To Be it’s an enthralling encapsulation of her musical maturity. “I feel I’m a little closer to the piano,” Hiromi concludes. “All the pianists that I really respect not only love but are loved by the piano, and that’s the relationship that I would love to build through my life.”