Q&A: Japanese pianist Hiromi on Zappa and working with Simon Phillips

Hiromi sitting on a chair with a striped top
(Image: © Muga Miyahara)

Over the course of 10 albums beginning with her 2003 debut Another Mind, plus collaborations with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, Hiromi has established a reputation as one of the most dynamic and daring pianists of her generation. Her technically demanding music is rooted in jazz but respects no boundaries, freely pulling in progressive rock, classical, fusion and whatever else takes her fancy.

Are you influenced by musicians other than pianists?

“Oh yeah, definitely. I was always fascinated by guitar, especially the rock guitar players like Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa. A lot of music I grew up listening to involved guitar so that’s why I’m fascinated by the sound. Zappa, I love his writing very much. I love music with humour, that’s another reason I love Zappa. I love musicians who have such a strong personality, when I first listened to them I had never heard anything like that before. Jeff, his sound just makes me cry.”

How do you choose a set list for the duo with Stanley Clarke?

“It depends. For this tour he sent me some music and I sent him some music, some new material that I wrote, we try it in soundcheck to see if it works as a duet and if we feel like it, we play it. There are a couple of pieces we’ve been playing as a duet for the past couple of years, but yesterday in soundcheck at Istanbul he suddenly said,
‘We should play Mercy Mercy Mercy. I was just thinking about Joe [Zawinul], so we should play that.’ We tried it and it worked so we actually played Mercy Mercy Mercy as an encore and people loved it. So it’s very jazz in a way.”

You signed with Telarc while still studying at Berklee. Was that a surprise?

“I still remember the boss of Telarc told me that people might think he’s crazy to sign an Asian female instrumentalist who writes her own music. I didn’t really get what he was saying at the time but the more I toured and started playing more festivals, I realised I never meet Asian female instrumentalists who play their own music. I never met a single one of them. So that explains why it was a big challenge for the record label to sign me. I just feel really fortunate that I can keep doing this if it’s that rare. I always wanted to perform my own music. It always felt really natural. I’m playing some standards with Stanley but I will never quit writing my own music or performing my own music because that’s where my heart is. I try to write something every day, it can be something really little. I can’t say every piece is a masterpiece, but whenever I feel something amazing, a landscape, or maybe a conversation I have, or a play or movie or anything, when my emotions really get moved, that’s what makes me want to write. So it’s a very natural thing and I can’t really think of any other way to express myself.”

There is a constant dialogue between you, Simon Phillips and Anthony Jackson on stage, both melodically and rhythmically. How does that work?

“Well I see the piano as a melodic instrument as much as I see it as a percussive instrument. The drums can be a melodic instrument as well as percussive so for this album I’m having Simon play the melody for one song with his octobans, the high pitched tom-toms. We can take different roles, the three of us, who will play the lead melody, who will be the drummer.”

Simon says that you bully him and Anthony by writing such difficult music!

“Well they always told me they love challenges – you have to be careful what you ask for!”

Where does that fire come from when you perform?

“Whenever a great opportunity comes along, I give everything and every single show I’ve had since 2002, that was my official debut in Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, since then I don’t know how many shows I’ve played, but every show I always think, this is my first and last. Even when I have three days or a week at a club, I always think this is my first and last. I never think this is my second day, the second show. You always have to be thankful for people’s time: they’re sharing the very precious time of their lives with me. Even if I give everything, it’s probably impossible to satisfy every one of them because it’s music. Maybe one can be in the mood for something else, maybe one can be sick, you never know, but at least that’s what I can do, to not take all these lucky things happening to me for granted. I always feel like the club or the concert hall is like a big spaceship or a big boat and I’m the pilot. You never get the same group, some people may return to my show, but it will never be the same group of people. It’s always a once in a lifetime opportunity for that very boat.”

You’ve said that playing solo is like fighting with yourself, playing with a group is like a team sport. Do you still feel that way?

“Even when I’m playing with a group, we’re always fighting ourselves, always trying to beat the best show we ever played, hoping this show will be better. The winning moment is when you can beat the best show you ever played, have today become the best show of this year or my life, that’s when I feel ‘Yes!’, but it rarely happens unfortunately. I feel so at home on stage with the piano, I love performing and that’s what I live for. I still remember when you apply for Berklee, you have to write a letter to the school, the first sentence of my letter was, ‘I want to make people happy with my music.’ And that’s a feeling I’ve kept since childhood. I always wanted to make the people around me happy with my music. Hopefully I’m doing it!”

Spark is out now on Telarc. Visit Hiromi’s website for more information.