Wednesday 15 November 2023

Absolutely kaleidoscopic tour de force of collective music making: Hiromi at the EFG London Jazz Festival

Hiromi (Photo: Mari Amita)
Hiromi (Photo: Mari Amita)

Hiromi; EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders (13 November 2023)

One concert, two strikingly different ensembles. Superstar pianist Hiromi brings her collaborators to the EFG London Jazz Festival

On 13 November 2023, Japanese superstar pianist Hiromi brought two different ensembles to the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican. The first half featured Hiromi:The Piano Quartet with Hiromi, Thomas Gould, Shlomy Dobrinsky (violins), Meghan Cassidy (viola) and Gabriella Swallow (cello), then the second half featured Hiromi's Sonicwonder with Hiromi, Adam O'Farrill (trumpet), Hadrian Feraud (bass) and Gene Coye (drums). 

The main item in the first half was Hiromi's extensive and substantial Silver Lining Suite - a lockdown project that has now toured worldwide and is only now having its London debut. Conceived somewhere between chamber music and jazz, this four movement work for piano and string quartet maintained its drive and relentless forward momentum through forty minutes of wildly varied music.

 Right from the opening gospel-flavoured number, the ensemble plunged into a fusion-tinged sound world in which anything seemed possible. The traditionally notated and composed music for the string quartet and Hiromi's mercurial flights of pianistic fancy sat comfortably together, and the easy familiarity of these players was clear and evident. The modal chordal progressions, laid over the pumping bass of Swallow's cello, built up to a series of compelling climaxes, with the quartet and the piano taking turns to dominate the texture, before launching Hiromi into one of her trademark high energy solos, briskly supported by powerful and directional pizzicato bass lines from the cello.

The Unknown was a more meditative moment, after the thrusting energy of the opening pieces, starting with gentle, almost folky harmonies before steadily building to Rachmaninoff-like climax, steeped in romanticism. After this outpouring of emotion, the blues stride gospel influences were once again to the fore in Drifters, which featured some great interplay between the string players as individuals, as well as pitting them against and alongside the piano, as a contrasting unit and as an accompaniment. It would be fair to say that this ensemble worked at its best when the musicians were allowed to lean into their strengths, the strings performing chamber music as a quartet, and Hiromi using them to provide support, variety and to add a certain vividness of instrumental colour to her flamboyant solos.

I was able to get a few words from the musicians about their experiences, as classical musicians, of working with such a fluent improviser. Cellist Gabriella Swallow compared working with Hiromi to taking a masterclass, and went to to say that "...[Hiromi] has pushed all my limits as a musician which takes so much trust when we are from very different musical backgrounds..." and that it was one of the most exhilarating musical collaborations of her life – a feeling that she clearly communicated from the stage, radiating a fierce joy in making music throughout the hyper-intense suite that formed the first half.

The suite concluded by featuring the string quartet as soloists. Although clearly not as immersed in the jazz idiom as Hiromi, they gave fluent performances, ending with an incredible cadenza from charismatic violinist Tom Gould which blended Bach with lyrical freedom, impeccable technique and a beautifully poised sense of timing. Tom pointed out that thing that he most notices is how similar his and Hiromi's musical languages are, and that "...a lot of her improvisations are Bach-infused counterpoint, Baroque or operatic virtuosity, or quotes from the classical repertoire..." and that this makes her music accessible to improvisers, such as himself, without a specific background in jazz.

After the interval, a strikingly different sound was created by the four musicians of Hiromi's Sonicwonder - a new project featuring Adam O'Farrill on trumpet, Hadrian Feraud on bass and Gene Coye on drums, with Hiromi herself darting between piano, electric piano and Nord analogue synth.

The driven synthesiser groove that opened Sonicwonderland, underpinned by a thumping four-to-the-floor kick drum, rather than the atmosphere of jazz, conjured up the spirit of a night club or a retro video game, which then exploded into a jaw-dropping whirlwind adventure before leading into a massively sustained keyboards solo which saw Hiromi leaping out of her seat with the sheer physicality of her playing, as jaws dropped around the sold out Barbican hall - in fact the whoops of delight and audible audience gasps at the audacity of her playing only served to heighten the excitement. The splendid duration of Hiromi's solos left O'Farrill on the sidelines for long periods, but he not only delivered a pair of beautifully contrasted solos, one furious and post-bop, like a demented tribute to Dizzy, the other tenderly wrapped in reverbs and electronic delay loops, but also traded a fabulous set of fiery fours with the piano.

Hiromi was nothing if not generous towards her all star band, featuring the lyrical virtuosity of Feraud's bass on the balladesque Utopia, while Coye, who had been a loyal and attentive accomplice throughout the set, responding intuitively to every whim of the quartet, finally was let loose to bring the house down with a stupendously epic extended drum solo; a veritable demonstration of polyrhythmic skill, limb independence and musicianship.

This evening, from start to finish, was an absolutely kaleidoscopic tour de force of collective music making, Hiromi's stellar solo work and composition just one ingredient in an intoxicating brew of jazz fusion wonderment that left the audience alternately awestruck and enthused.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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