After a wonderful performance in Paris on June 19th, 2013, the jazz genius Hiromi Uehara accepted to grant us an interview. Here she gives us a great, very interesting insight into her musical world and her personal story.
(L’interview en français se trouve ici.)
Q: You started learning the piano at the age of six, was it something you wanted or was it your parents’ will?
Hiromi: My mother took to the piano lesson and I instantly fell in love with it. I didn’t ask her to take lessons but then, it was love at first sight.
Q: When you were only 17, you had the chance to play with Chick Corea on stage. The man is a legend, how did you feel about that?
H: I felt really lucky and grateful. It was like a dream. It’s hard to remember what I played because it was too dreamy. I had the chance to make a record with him ten years after, at that time I could finally digest it.
Q: So you needed ten years to understand that it really happened?
H: Yes, because Chick is very open-minded, he gives a lot of chances to young musicians. To me, it was just too good to be true. But then ten years later, when I did an album with him, then finally I could understand that it did really happen. I could feel how much I’ve progressed for the past ten years and that was very good.
Music is like a speaking language. When I played with him at 17, I didn’t have enough vocabulary to say what I wanted to say. So I could really feel after ten years that I could make a record and play. Of course the library of my vocabulary is not as big as Chick’s but I could somehow find a way to really make music with him and I could enjoy that moment. When I was 17, it was just a surprise, a shock.
Q: You didn’t plan to play with him?
H: No, it just happened. He called me up to the stage. I met him the day before the show. I happened to be in this building practising and he was rehearsing for the show. I heard, “Chick’s in the building.” So I introduced myself, then I played something and he said, “What are you doing tomorrow? I have a show, do you wanna come?” Afterwards, he called me to the stage and I played.
It’s the best seat to see Chick playing when you’re next to him so I was so happy. But it was too shocking and too surprising and I wasn’t able to really understand what was going on. But ten years after that, I could really feel and enjoy it.
Q: Can you talk a bit more about the collaboration with Chick Corea for the album? How did you get along with him?
H: When I was 26 years old, I played a duet with him for the Tokyo Jazz Festival. At that time he asked if I wanted to make an album with him. So we did a live concert the year after to make an album. I played a couple of my original songs, a couple of his and all the standards. I felt a great chemistry between us. Everything made sense when we played together. I knew how to respond to what he was saying. What I wanted to say in music was really clear, so that was great.
Q: You said you’ve been keeping a musical diary since you were 6. Do you sometimes use what you’ve been writing, let’s say, between 6 and 16 years old?
H: Yes. For some motifs and some parts of music, I cannot find the way they should be going. For example, something that I wrote at the age of 18, maybe seven years later I find the right place for it. Every motif, every bar, every musical note that I write, they’re on the journey to “find home”. And when I can say to myself, “this is the right home for this particular motif”, I put it in that home and then I build that home from that foundation.
Q: You love improvisation. We understand that improvisation isn’t just melody modifications, it can be rhythmic, dynamic and so on, … How far is your band allowed to improvise? Do you write their part and they have to strictly follow it or do you, sometimes, challenge each other with improvisations?
H: It depends on the songs but usually 70, 80% [of every piece are improvised]. If we play a 10-minute song, then for 7 minutes, we improvise. We have cores and stuff but the rest is improvisation. We challenge each other at every show and try to play something that we’ve never played before. It’s like a conversation with people and when you speak to the same people, then you know how they tend to respond to you. So you know their personalities. We get tighter as a band when we play. We always try to challenge ourselves and to look for new adventures every single day.
We try to surprise each other every day. Sometimes, this one person in the band says something very surprising and the other two might say the same thing at the same time and then, we are like, “Yes, that’s it!” It’s just like conversation. It happens sometimes when you’re talking with two other people. You say something and both of them happen to say the same thing at the same time, that’s what also happens in improvisation.
Q: How many concerts do you need to feel close to the musicians in your band?
H: More is always better, but when you play with someone you can feel the chemistry with, just the first show is already magic.
Q: What is the most important thing for a successful live show?
H: Being always hungry to learn. I’m always hungry to learn. I always look for something that I can study. Challenges are the key in life. You always have to challenge yourself and try to get to different states.
Q: Are you eager to learn about other people you are playing with, or about yourself and your own world?
H: About everything. I want to learn and to be a better player. I want to be more able understand the musicians I’m playing with so that I can communicate with them in a better way. There’s many things to learn.
Q: Jazz is a wonderful musical style, but it can be terribly intimidating too at the beginning, especially the improvisation part. What advice would you give to the pianists who want to learn about it?
H: Everybody improvises without noticing it. Life is about improvising. You can’t control what happens in your life, I mean, you don’t know what can happen in your life today. So you somehow improvise. When you communicate with people in conversations, you improvise. Of course, if you don’t know the vocabularies, it’s hard to improvise. For example, if you’ve just started learning Japanese, then you can only use the sentences that you learnt, “I am going to school.” or “Hello, how are you?” It’s not improvisation, they are borrowed words.
I speak two languages: Japanese and English. When I went to the USA, I spoke no word of English. Little by little, I started to understand what people were saying. It was frustrating at the beginning that I couldn’t express what I wanted to say like “I’m hungry”, “I’m sleepy”, simple things. The more vocabularies you get, the easier it is to express yourself. For example, when you’re hungry, you can say more precise things like “I want to eat something not too heavy.”
To get that skill, you have to speak to very fluent speakers. Listen to a lot of musicians who have a lot of vocabularies, just like babies try to learn vocabulary and a new language from their parents. So you have to listen to fluent speakers who have a lot of great vocabularies of improvisation. First, you copy, try to get the vocabularies and when you get enough vocabularies, then you can create your own way to improvise. I think that’s the only way to learn about improvisation in music.
Q: Jazz is originally a Western music. Yet, do you also draw inspiration, amongst others, from Japanese sounds when you compose the themes of your pieces and more generally, your music?
H: I’ve never really even thought about jazz as a Western music. This is just improvised music. Of course, I grew up listening to Japanese music and somehow, I should be influenced by that too. I can’t really locate the part of myself influenced by Japanese music but I’m sure, it is.
Q: Do you have some favourite Japanese bands or artists?
H: Somebody that I’ve listened to from a very old time is the singer Hibari Misora (Japanese enka singer, actress and cultural icon, ed.). She’s a legendary figure [in Japan]. She’s an amazing singer. There’s also Akiko Yano (Japanese pop and jazz musician and singer, ed.) who I played with a couple of times. Dreams Come True, a big pop band from Japan.
Q: Can you tell us the concept behind your latest album, Move?
H: I wanted to write something like “soundtrack of the day”. The first song (“Move”, ed.) that I played [at the concert] last night is the opening track of the album and it starts with the sound of an alarm clock. So the day starts, then you go out and you feel fresh air. Then you have to go to work. Things like that. The closing track of the album ends with the sound of a chime which tells you it’s midnight. This song was called “11:49” because it’s an eleven-minute piece (laughter). I just wanted to write the flow of the day because I think there are certain emotions that you can only feel at certain times of the day. I thought that the link between time and emotions was really interesting.
Q: So have you ever played this song at 11:49pm?
H: It’s improvised so it’s never the same length unfortunately, but when I played in Blue Note [Jazz Club] in New York in April, the second show started at 10:30pm. It was a little delayed at 10:40. I played this piece at the encore and apparently the song finished at midnight. That was so cool (laughter). It only happened twice.
Q: What do you want to share, to express, through your music?
H: Emotions. Joy, sadness. All the emotions. Anger, frustration, temptation. The beautiful thing about music is that even so-called negative emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, when they come through the filter of music, they all become beautiful. Nobody wants to experience sad events but people like to listen to sad songs. That’s the beauty of music.
My music is very emotional. The reason why I want to play music is very emotional. I want to call out my emotions and package them into music.
Q: According to your feelings, do you play the same piece differently?
H: Every day is different and improvised. Sometimes, a song can lead to a completely different adventure. You can’t control it.
Q: You told me you’ve been to the United States. The first time, when you couldn’t speak English, were you tempted to only play music in order to communicate?
H: That’s how I made all my friends (laughter). It was really helpful. Music came first and I started to jam with people I couldn’t communicate in their language. Then, because I could make friends thanks to music, they started to talk to me. Then I started to learn English.
Q: If you had compare your playing style to an animal, what animal would it be?
H: I don’t know, you got me (laughter). I’ve never talked about it.
Q: What about a mix between a sparrow and an elephant?
H: OK, that’s good. Yes, sometimes elephant, sometimes squirrel, sometimes I think of Godzilla (laughter).
Q: Your performance was really impressive last night. Where does all your strength come from when you play music?
H: I don’t do any physical training but practising everyday builds my muscles. So it probably comes from my strong will to deliver a message.
Q: What are the artists that influence you the most?
H: Frank Zappa.
Q: And if you could record with one musician, dead or alive, who would that be?
H: Frank Zappa.
Q: What is your biggest musical dream? Or maybe you’ve already reached it?
H: My biggest musical dream is to keep playing all my life. There’s nothing bigger than that and that’s very challenging because you have to satisfy yourself at every stage. Satisfying yourself requires challenges because when you come to a certain point, you’re not happy anymore. You don’t feel happy with the way you played one year ago, you have to always make progress. So that’s a challenge.
Q: Do you think that your body could be a limit for yourself? Professional players’ bodies, because of intensive playing, sometimes break down and can’t keep on playing. Are you afraid of this kind of thing or of not finding any new challenges?
H: I’m not afraid. I maintain myself well. It has a little more to do with travelling. Travelling is very difficult, you have to go to places with different climates and time zones. Travelling like that every single day through the year is definitely not healthy, but that’s something I have to sacrifice if I want to play music. I’m not worried, I try to maintain myself and to take good care of myself. I eat healthy, I do a lot of stretching and yoga. Trying to be in good shape.
Also, I’m probably not playing the same way I used to play when I was 20 years old. And let’s say 10 years later, I’ll probably not be able to play like how I play right now. I think it’s just shape shifting every decade. I think it’s OK. It’s like how you dress, what you eat change. You can’t dress the same way you did at 18 when you’re 30. Maybe some people do if you like it and work hard to do that. But I always want to be true to myself and do what I feel like doing at that time. Somehow, I always find a way to do what I want to play.
Q: You are still on tour for a while (until August, ed.). When the tour is over, what will be your mid- and long-term projects?
H: Practising and writing probably. I need some good down time to put myself in the room and just write. I can write small things, couples of bars, couples of mini-pieces on the road. Though, I really need to sit down, to write and to organize everything that I wrote on the road so that I can make the pieces out of it. It takes some time so whenever I have a couple of months off, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing it.
The interview was prepared with the help of Marc Tunguz (Japan Addiction Music editor-in-chief).