Review: Hiromi at the Southbank Centre

Never before have I attended a concert of two such distinct halves. Before the intermission, the unsavoury, almost relentlessly tasteless fusion jazz gradually begins giving way to more subdued sounds; but after it, the music burgeons into a gorgeous blend of three-piece magic, with Hiromi taking the music to increasingly giddy heights.

We begin with silence as 36-year-old Japanese piano prodigy Hiromi – the frontwoman of The Trio Project – looks at her instrument, contemplating. She opens in an Arabesque minor key, soon taking to the small synthesiser on the piano top with her left hand. When the band kicks in, we’re planted unmistakeably in ’70s fusion mode. The constant cymbal-crashing gives it away: it’s a large drum-kit, and Simon Phillips thunders around it without restraint.

Hiromi

Hiromi, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to want to spend too much time on the synth; it’s hard to slam out notes on an instrument designed for texture rather than percussion. Bringing her left hand back to the piano, she occasionally withdraws each hand quickly, as if stung by how hard she’s hammering the keys. Her left foot remains still; her right either taps or swings back and forth, childlike. Her back is straight throughout, and though her fringe is conventionally “oriental” (see the front cover of 2014 LP Alive), most of her hair blossoms phototropically into an afro.

The dynamic is unusual. Hiromi visibly out-powers her two staunch comrades, including electric contrabassist Anthony Jackson. After about ten minutes, she plays the opener’s final note, standing as she hits the key. The applause is uproarious, but the trio’s technique is far easier to appreciate than the music itself, which so far is cold, heartless, calculated to impress.

The second track is another fast one. Hiromi’s left hand is more dominant this time, as is the contrabass guitar, which gets a brief solo. Soon she starts playing the lounge pianist, grinning at the audience (keeping her eyes away from the keys) as if to connect. It is, to quote the Bell Boy from Quadrophenia, “all gilt and flash”. When she stops playing the cod-showman and starts being herself, though, it’s something to behold: at one point her hands become woodpeckers, nailing the ivories with preternatural precision and supernatural speed.

Indulgence begins with slow solo piano, and when the drums join this time, they don’t mar the piece. It’s similar in title and mood to Santana’s Treat. In theory, the contrabass and drums might have anchored the music, allowing Hiromi to explore the upper registers of the piano more clearly, but in practice this doesn’t succeed until Indulgence. She still plays like a demon child, though, headbanging despite the music’s more subdued tone. It’s the shortest track so far, noticeably under ten minutes long.

Hiromi 2

Things continue in this more pleasant vein into the next song: the added emphasis on the cymbals are now at the expense of the skins. But though the piano shimmers gently for the most part, at one point Hiromi hammers out an ascent/descent up and down the keys with the sides of her hands.

After the interval, the music goes stratospheric. Hiromi commences her Satie-esque solo piano rendition of Place To Be by twanging the piano strings, and goes on to play with such poise, effortlessness and beauty that whatever critical faculties I had were soon shut down.

By the time she treats us to Seeker, we’re almost in pop territory. She’s looking at us and practically gurning the whole time, though this time it doesn’t irritate. Her right foot kicks; her right hand dazzles; her left hand anchors. The rhythm section complements the music well.

She warns us that the last track will be a long one, and it is. We start with piano-and-drum fusion, but it’s pleasant fusion; the two musicians race along together. Hiromi claws and paws at the keys, grinning manically. She’s headbanging constantly; every other second, she’s on her feet. This is a showstopper in every sense of the word. When the piece has climaxed she gets up and wipes her forehead with a flannel, wandering over to centre stage. But the song isn’t over yet.

We’re treated to a tedious, figuratively one-note drum solo; near its tail end, Hiromi saunters back – and after several minutes of Phillips’ drum-bashing, the pianist resumes, standing up and smashing the keys like a particularly tasteful maniac.

The Trio Project’s previous records have been listenable enough, but spend most of their time prizing virtuosity, technique and sturm und drang over feel. As a result, even the live experience is stultifying in places. But when the music becomes a breathtaking vehicle for Hiromi’s intuition, formidable spirit, and tremendous melodic capabilities, it is truly an amazing sight.

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