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Hiromi's Trio Project at the Dakota Jazz Club, 6/21/11

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Hiromi Trio Experience

June 21, 2011
Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis

When Dakota's owner Lowell Picket got on stage to personally introduce Hiromi's newest Trio Project last night, he made a point to mention just how frequently the Japanese pianist likes to return to play the club (sometimes up to four times in one year) and how remarkable it is that she comes back each time with a completely new band, new songs, and entirely new set. Of the many, many impressive things about Hiromi, last night's show especially showcased the fact that Ms. Uehara is a constantly evolving performer who, despite being at the top of her field, somehow manages to keep getting better every time she comes back to town.

This might sound idiotic, but it's true: Though I've seen Hiromi perform at the Dakota four times, last night was the first time I watched her perform from the perspective of a fellow piano player. Granted, I'm nowhere near the level of player of, well, anyone who has ever set foot on the Dakota's stage, but I have a solid understanding of the instrument and studied it throughout my childhood and early college years, and watching Hiromi's hands last night and thinking about just how many hours of practice I'd have to clock to replicate any of it made her show all the more thrilling. There are a lot of pianists out there who can rip through scales -- major, minor, pentatonic, whatever fits the song -- at breakneck speed, and sending a flurry of ascending and descending notes out into the air can sound very impressive. But what's more stunning technically is the way that Hiromi's right and left hands are almost always playing two entirely different melodies, at times like they are recreating a dissonant version of one of Bach's fugues, and that she is improvising many of these complex arrangements on the fly. At one point last night, she spent over a minute playing a circular melody that was perfect mirrored by her left hand, but in reverse -- and it was one of several moments throughout the set that caused the entire room to erupt in awestruck cheers.

Hiromi's newest album is called Voice, and she is certainly still in the process of finding hers. For someone so masterful in so many different styles of jazz, from be-bop to fusion to ragtime and swing, she could easily hang her entire career on the fact that she's a virtuoso that can literally play anything. But what does Hiromi's voice really sound like, and how does she express her personality? She's in the process of finding out, and it's an exhilarating journey.

One of the more stunning moments of the night, as with many of Hiromi's shows, was when her backing band took a break and she performed solo. Rather than take the opportunity to flaunt her technique in another dizzying display, she tenderly played a quiet, reverential ballad that had the entire near-capacity room pin-drop quiet and people in the balcony standing and staring, completely still and swept away in the song. She normally spends her songs looking out at the crowd and grinning gleefully, barely looking down to take note of where her fingers are on the keyboard, but Hiromi spent this song with her head bowed, looking inward to draw out the fluttering, dreamy melodies. Though Hiromi has made a name for herself based on raw technical talent, it was this more pensive moment that put a lump in my throat and that demonstrated what her "voice" might actually sound like. It was beautiful.

Personal bias: Hiromi has been my favorite excuse to go to the Dakota for three years now.
The crowd: Diverse, appreciative, amazed.
Overheard in the crowd: "Ground control to Major Tom." (Not sure why, but the guy at the next table randomly started singing this and I couldn't help but laugh.)
Random notebook dump: This was Hiromi's last of four sets at the Dakota (she played two sets each on Monday and Tuesday nights), and she noted how sad she was that her most recent trip was already almost over. It's comforting to know that Hiromi loves the Dakota as much as the club loves her, and I'm sure she'll be back soon.