Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

An enchanted afternoon with Hiromi, Japanese prog-jazz big-shot extraordinaire

Hiromi's 2003 debut, Another Mind, was a slightly less proggy affair, with one composition tellingly titled "Double Personality." "I've never really argued with people," she says. "Like if somebody cut the line in front of me, I never feel mad, because I think there was a reason that he had to cut the line. Maybe he was busy. Nothing really bothers me. Like in the States, you know, like hotel and airline counters, but I always just think, what happened to their life? Or what happened to her today? It just doesn't make me upset."

There is one exception—her second personality. "In music, like in the studio, I feel so mad and like slam the door and go out of the studio when something is not right," she admits. "I think all of my want, you know, went into the music in myself, and didn't go any further in me. I don't get mad for food or the beach. Just for music. When I can't be satisfied with what I play. It's so rare that I'm actually satisfied with what I play."

And if there's a direct conflict? With, say, a less than competent soundman?

Go ahead and cut the line, she'll just pity you.
photo: Frank Capri
Go ahead and cut the line, she'll just pity you.

"Oh, that pisses me off so much," she says. "I become just like my hair."

But we—me, Roger, a few stray late-afternoon tourists and tipplers— see none of that. Sofia's offers no synthesizer, no pitch wheel, no bass, no drum set, no fusion-capable guitarist named Fuze. What we have, in an unfortunately mirrored corner of an Italian restaurant, is a young woman and a somewhat neglected Yamaha baby grand.

"It's not really easy to get along with a piano," Hiromi says. "Every day is like a blind date, and you just meet and say, OK, let's see what you can do for me and what I can do for her. My goal is to try and get the best possible sound from the instrument that I have today, trying to understand each other and trying to please the piano."

Hiromi takes off on the standard "Sakura, Sakura," a title she translates as "Cherry Blossoms." She sings to herself and, as she learned when she was six, visualizes colors. "It depends on the day I play," she says. "Sometimes it's like almost-gone cherry blossom, and sometimes it's like fully blossoming cherry blossom. It's just different every day, the visuals I see, so I'm trying to play for the visuals I have."

Her date for the afternoon, the baby grand, "has a really dry sound," she says. "It's more like a honky-tonk sound, so I should choose a song that's more like ragtime, which can be played by that kind of piano-roll kind of piano. That piano doesn't really sustain much."

So Hiromi plays another original from Another Mind, the cartoon-inspired signature tune "The Tom and Jerry Show." And here she cuts loose. As if Roger, or some other new sheriff in town, waved a gun in the vicinity of a saloon's upright and growled, "Now play." Her keyboard dexterity is, for lack of a better term, awe-inspiring. She is in and out like a downhill racer, lost in the music and the moment. Percussive, personal. And almost too private to watch.

"That's the best way to use that piano," she says. "If I'm in a beautiful concert hall with a beautiful, well-tuned piano, then I could just play one chord and keep it suspended for like, I don't know, 10 seconds, and it can make people cry."

But Roger's not going to cry. Ever. He doesn't have it in him. It's not his role. It's not going to happen. But maybe he's got something better.

We gather our drinks (cranberry juice and Coke, respectively—no bottle of red, no bottle of white), lock the piano, return to the bar, and offer Roger the key.

"I've been bartending for years and I've seen thousands of piano players," he says. "But she's the best I've ever heard."

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