Scenes From An Italian Restaurant


Hiromi Uehara and I swap iPods.We both own black 80-gigs. She is partial to Zappa, King Crimson, techno, and jazz classics from Miles Davis to her mentor, Ahmad Jamal. I’m an indie rock guy, heavy on guitar and harmonies. But there is some crossover. Oddly enough, her iPod contains four songs by Billy Joel. Mine carries one. Our only match? “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

By chance, on a recent Friday afternoon (May 11), we (Hiromi and I) find ourselves in an Italian restaurant near Times Square (say, Sofia’s on 46th Street between 8th and Broadway). Outside the nearby window (i.e., “a table near the street”), tourists file past, and steam rises from the pavement following a just-concluded late-spring downpour.

But Brenda and Eddie we ain’t.

For starters, Hiromi is a pianist of prodigious proportions, all of 28 years old. For 22 of those years, she’s performed on all manner of keyboards, going “maybe a day or two” without playing. “It’s not about guilty,” she says. “You know, like when I’m on a long flight, I just feel weird, like I didn’t eat or I didn’t sleep. It’s too much of my daily life.”

On those long flights, she’s gone so far as to use similarly positioned objects—seat-back tray tables, for example—and play them like pianos. “I don’t even realize it,” she says. “Actually, my manager took a photo of me typing a keyboard at the gate of the airport, and it looks so much I’m playing the piano. It’s so funny. I think my body’s made to play the piano.”

And yet Hiromi is also an exception to the rule of jazz: young, female, Japanese, and energetic in a sport barely resistant of attempts to embalm it as a decidedly male-dominated arena. Yea, verily, a genre given to more recently pronounced death rattles than God and poetry combined.

For the week and a half prior to our meeting, Hiromi has performed on the West Coast; in little more than 24 hours she’ll take the stage at the nearly sacred Kennedy Center in D.C. as part of a special (and altogether rare) evening of Women in Jazz. By Monday she’ll be out of the country altogether, leading her quartet through Britain, Germany, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, and Slovakia.

Now, though, she’s in an Italian restaurant just off Times Square. We’re here to do an interview, of course. But we’re also here to let Hiromi play.

Mike, the restaurant manager and a jazz fan prone to his own late-night sax practice in the establishment’s coat-check room, has kindly agreed to let us commandeer Sofia’s baby grand sometime between the lunch and dinner shifts. Mike’s bartender, though aware of the arrangement, doesn’t appear to have been given a vote. The gentleman (let’s call him Roger), whose significant height threatens so many hanging wine glasses just above him, possesses the imposing yet schooled manners of a professional bouncer, like a young James Garner who only plays villains.

Unfortunately for Roger, he is limited in his current role. Rather than bad as he wants to be, he is merely as bad as a Times Square Italian restaurant will allow—a gunslinger with no Western.

Nonetheless, when Roger intones (cue basso profundo), “Norah Jones once played here,” I take the proclamation as a threat.

And yet I have no fear (well, maybe a little fear, if my overtipping is any indication). For despite her petite, almost schoolgirlish appearance (costume design note: jeans and Puma Mihara–styled sneakers), Hiromi can sure enough whup the shit out of a piano.

“I never really had, like, something that I really want in life apart from something in music,” she says. “Piano is a magic potion for me. I need to be united with the piano, then Hiromi, the artist, can be created.”

For Hiromi the artist, the piano brings about a different world. Today, for instance, is the first time I’ve ever seen her offstage. Which also means it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her with her hair down. In performance, Hiromi has taken to pulling her hair up into some kind of tight, spiraling, cockeyed ponytail, a style she labels “explosive.”

As she plays, a possession occurs. Her eyes close, and her mouth opens as if evoking some primitive appetite. She sings—another unconscious affectation—but only to herself. “Lines and shapes,” she calls them, rather than musical notes. Hiromi’s first teacher (all those 22 years ago) instructed with colors (“play red,” etc.) rather than notes. An affinity, an adeptness, an ability, an aptitude rarely seen was duly noted. Or rather it reached out and slapped anyone within earshot directly in the face. And by the end of her high-school career, Hiromi had performed with such notables as Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, and the Czech Philharmonic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that her frenetic playing caroms through nearly every musical style known to the keyboard.

For example, the first cut (“Time Difference”) on her fourth and latest album (
Time Control
) begins with a kind of classical “Tubular Bells” lick before welcoming the guitar of new addition Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski for some doubled notes of mid-’70s prog rock, which Hiromi then combats with a heaping helping of synthesizer and some Herbie Hancock pitch-wheel histrionics.

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?

“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.”