As the pianist/composer says, “I think there are only two genres: the genre which moves my heart and the genre that doesn’t. So I don’t really mind where this album gets categorized… I’m just playing the music which moves my heart.”
Hiromi found herself back in her native Japan after a U.S. tour was suddenly cut short last March. “I had just finished performing in Seattle and had traveled to San Francisco when the state of emergency [was declared],” Hiromi recalls. “We could tell something was starting to happen in Seattle. At night it was a ghost town; people still came to the show, but everybody was so cautious. I couldn’t even hug the sound engineer like I always do. Then there was such a weird vibe at the airport. I decided to come to Tokyo to wait and see what would happen, but the situation got worse and worse.”
Suddenly cut off from her lifeblood, music, Hiromi was stunned by the unrelenting stream of horrific events affecting lives and livelihoods in the wake of the coronavirus. The devastation wrought on the music business in particular hit close to home. “It was weird, worrying, and uncertain in the beginning, full of negative emotions,” she says. “Shows stopped and a lot of venues closed, some of them for good, unfortunately. Whenever I heard that kind of news, I was down. I thought a lot about my friends who work in the music industry, and I started trying to find something positive I could do under this situation.”
She found an ideal partner in the Blue Note Tokyo, whose stage usually hosts renowned jazz artists from across the globe. Once venues started to cautiously reopen, Hiromi suggested a series of limited capacity, live-streamed concerts that she dubbed “Save Live Music,” eventually performing a remarkable 32 solo concerts over 16 days in August and September 2020.
With a second series scheduled for December and January, Hiromi didn’t want to play alone again. With her usual bandmates an ocean away and unable to travel, she puzzled over what form these concerts would take. She’d befriended Tatsuo Nishie after performing with the New Japan Philharmonic, so the idea of a piano quintet began to take shape. “I’ve always had a passion for writing for strings,” she explains, having studied composition while a student at Berklee College of Music. “I put four chairs on stage near the piano and something clicked in my head. I saw that setting, piano, and four empty chairs, and I started to hear something. I knew it was going to work. I called Tatsuo before I even wrote any music.”
Nishie was tasked with finding musicians who could play Hiromi’s classically inspired compositions while being able to veer into jazz vocabulary. He enlisted violinist Sohei Birmann, violist Meguna Naka, and cellist Wataru Mukai – the latter a particularly vital choice, called upon to play pizzicato walking bass lines.
The suite begins with “Isolation,” an emotional state that everyone became intimate with during the course of the pandemic. A single voice is soon joined by others in a determined, graceful dance that sparks a flurrying solo from Hiromi, sounding as if the floodgates of her creative imagination were suddenly flung open. Dark and agitated lines scatter and converge on “The Unknown,” depicting the fear and unpredictability that marked the progress of the last year.
Those sensations left many feeling adrift, lost at sea, a notion captured beautifully on the melancholic “Drifters.” Emotions had a way of ping-ponging from one extreme to another throughout the experience, and Hiromi and the quartet regroup with the steely “Fortitude,” a testament to the resilience of the musical community that has weathered this terrible storm. “Uncertainty,” which opens with an introspective solo turn by the pianist, was a late addition to the suite. Hiromi composed the tremulous piece after her January series was postponed to March by a return to lockdown conditions in Japan, as a portrait of the moment and a gift to the audiences who patiently reconvened in the spring.
The three remaining pieces are expanded compositions from Hiromi’s “One Minute Portrait” series, in which she played virtual duos with long-distance collaborators on her Instagram page. Determination turns to hope on the resolute “Someday,” originally played with bassist Avishai Cohen, which seems to insist that an end will, eventually, arrive. The lively “Jumpstart,” initially a fiery pairing with pianist Stefano Bollani, predicts the renewal that will come with that long-anticipated moment. And the tango-inspired “Ribera del Duero,” from a duo with harpist Edmar Castaneda, is named for Hiromi’s favorite wine, something she looks forward to once again sharing with friends.
Finally, “11:49PM” is reprised from the 2012 trio album Move, inspired by a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The night is long that never finds the day.” The line gave Hiromi hope that she would one day play in front of adoring audiences once again.
“The morning will come,” she insists. “The sun will rise again. That’s why I kept writing music. It shows my emotional journey through the pandemic.” ~Concord Jazz
Release date to be announced.