A Conversation with Hiromi Uehara
Mike Ragogna: Hiromi, on your new album, Live In Montreal, you performed with Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda. What was it like the first time you heard him play? Were you surprised by how he approached the harp?
Hiromi Uehara: Yes! the very first time I saw his playing, I was just blown away. I didn't even know that a harp can be played like that. It was just a complete jaw-dropping experience.
MR: It’s unusual for that instrument to emphasize grooves and rhythms instead of supplying mostly melodies and accents.
HU: Yes. His way of approaching harp is very unique.
MR: Let's talk about the album. As the artist, was there anything special about this particular concert?
HU: We aimed to record this concert. We didn't decide after the show, we decided we were releasing it before we played the show. Basically, the recording engineer that I've been recording with for all my albums since my debut, we called him and he came to Montreal. It was all set-up for recording so that we could record it live with the best sound. The reason why I wanted to record is because it's the city where I met Edmar for the first time. We met in 2016 at the Montreal Jazz Festival. It was a very special day for me to encounter this amazing harpist. Then we happened to have this [potential] date exactly a year later, on June 30th. I just thought it was fate, we had to record in the city where we met. That's when I planned everything.
MR: Beautiful. "A Harp in New York" has different musical sections in it. First it’s serene, then it bursts into a very driven section. Because some of the album is visually interpretive, was it because you and Edmar were trying to paint your impressions of New York City?
HU: It's a song that Edmar wrote in New York. We always try to improvise. When we played in Montreal, we called it, "Harp In Montreal," when we play in Paris we call it, "Harp In Paris." It's like the first song of the show, so we try to be united with the audience. It's the first connection to the audience and the first connection of the two instruments. Just to have everybody connected, that's what we aim for in the first track.
MR: The concert included a tribute to the late bassist and jazz icon, Jaco Pastorius. Did he mean a lot to both of you?
HU: Yes, he's one of the most amazing bass players in history. He was extremely special to Edmar because he made him want to groove on harp. That's what he always says to the audience whenever he plays that song. When he first moved to New York in '94, he discovered so many jazz musicians. He discovered Jaco and started thinking, "How can I make a groove on harp?" That's when he really developed that kind of playing, so I'm sure that had a big, big impact on him.
MR: There’s also your take on "Cantina Band" from Star Wars. Most musicians would be intimidated to try and tackle something so beloved. Why did you choose it?
HU: I'm a big Star Wars fan as well as a John Williams fan. I've been loving that song for more than twenty years. I was always looking for the right instrumentation. When I started playing with Edmar and I heard the combination of piano and harp sounds, I thought this would be the ideal instrumentation for this song. I made a lead sheet, gave it to Edmar and said, "We should play this song," and I played it for him. He said, "This is great, is this Django?" I said, "No, actually it's a song from Star Wars." He'd never watched Star Wars in his life. He didn't even know that it came from Star Wars, he believed that it was a Django Reinhardt song. It kind of has that gypsy swing feel and also has a calypso feel later. I just thought it's perfect for how we play together since it has a little bit of stride and swing and a little bit of Latin feel. How the song expands, I thought it was perfect for us. That's why I chose that song.
MR: Now that I know you're a Star Wars fan, are you a fan of how they've continued the franchise?
HU: I welcome all the new Star Wars. Whatever comes, I take it. I love it! It's always great. It's a new adventure and at the same time, it always makes me nostalgic, remembering all these movies I've been watching since childhood. It's always stayed in my mind, that film, so I'm happy to watch it.
MR: Are you even a fan of the prequels?
HU: Yes. I'm not a hard critic of them.
MR: Are you a fan of other science fiction?
HU: Yes, I love science fiction movies very much! I watch them whenever I can. I love space, I love different species... It's so much fun, things beyond imagination.
MR: Well, kind of having a sci-fi or at least science theme, "The Elements" is a four-movement suite that you created. Was it especially for this concert?
HU: I started to write this music after I met Edmar. I was just imagining the sound of piano and harp together, so I wrote this especially for this project. It just happened to be four pieces, total.
MR: How do you think it came off performing live rather than recording it in a studio?
HU: For this particular duet, we met in Montreal and the concert was booked for the anniversary of the day we met, so I felt like it was fate. I knew that factor could add so much to our inspiration, so I just felt like I had to record it in Montreal, live, in front of the audience because it's “meant to be.”
MR: Do you prefer performing in Montreal?
HU: I always love performing in Montreal! The audience there is always so musical, so focused. They [musicians] listen as they play. They really take the ride and go with the flow of the music. I always could really be focused into music whenever I played in Montreal, so I have a trust towards the audience that it would be a great show. With all those reasons, I chose to record live.
MR: In some respects, the audience becomes the third instrument.
HU: Yes, of course. They always are.
MR: Recording in the studio versus recording live—which do you prefer? What do you think are the challenges when you record in the studio to make it have the same vibrancy and energy as when you're recording live?
HU: In a way, I would say it's the same. I always try to get the take live, even in the studio. Whenever I do a good take, I hear the audience, even in the studio. That's when I know this is the take.
MR: Beautiful. Did you know Bob James is a big fan of yours?
HU: [laughs] Yes, it's funny. I just saw him this summer and he's always such a sweetheart.
MR: Hiromi, you close the project with the "Libertango." By the time you reached this song during the concert, even though "The Elements" was the centerpiece, was the whole set list like a song cycle to you?
HU: It was a live concert that started with "Harp In New York" and after the show, ended with "Fire." We had an encore, "Libertango." The "Libertango" was actually one of the very first songs we played together. That was a month after we met in Montreal. I had my Blue Note New York shows for a week and I invited Edmar for two nights as a special guest. That's when we first played "Libertango," so I thought that was a nice closure to the night.
MR: Do you feel like you want to do this type of experience again, maybe play another set of material for a live concert for next year’s anniversary?
HU: [laughs] I don't know.
MR: Maybe it should be another venue. Maybe New York!
HU: [laughs] Maybe. I have no idea.
MR: Hiromi, what advice do you have for new artists?
HU: For me, devotion and discipline are two very important things in any kind of art or sport or any job, I guess. You have to really give yourself. The more you give yourself to the music and to the concert and the creating process, the more you get. Also always have discipline in what you want to do. That's what I've been doing. Strong discipline and devotion.
MR: What was the best advice you ever got?
HU: Keep doing what you're doing.
MR: What is in the future for you?
HU: I would love to have some time to write for a large ensemble. That is something that I've always wanted to do. It requires so much time, and I've been touring so much that I don't really have much time to do it. Also I'd love to record a solo album. I always try to do a solo album at least once in every decade. The last solo album I released was in 2009, so that's something I want to do in the close future, before ten years pass.
MR: How do you see yourself five to ten years from now? What do you want to have accomplished?
HU: I'd love to be able to express more things in music. All the pianists that I love and admire, they have so much vocabulary and so many colors in their palette. I think the better pianist you become, the more colors you have in your palette. You can play blue, you can play light blue, you can play deep blue, you can play ocean blue. You have so many colors even if you just want to play blue. If you want to play red, you have light red, passionate red, bright red. The more you master your instrument and also the expression of music, the more colors you can have in the palette. That's why I love to keep adding colors to the palette of my musicality.
MR: A common answer to that question is something like, "I'd love to have a house in Malibu." You went right for the art. It’s awesome you went there.
HU: [laughs] I was never materialistic.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JOSH LOVELACE’S “A BEAR IN THE WOODS” EXCLUSIVE/PREMIERE
With the goal of bridging the musical gap between generations of family members, needtobreathe’s Josh Lovelace’s new album Young Folk presents a collection of songs inspired by his own family’s adventures with a nod to artists ranging from Wilco to James Taylor. The exclusive premiere featured here, “A Bear In The Woods,” features vocals and “personality” by his pal and recording artist, Ben Rector.
According to Josh Lovelace...
“I wrote ‘A Bear In The Woods’ while on an anniversary trip to the mountains with my wife. There were signs all over our cabin telling us not to feed the bears in the woods. It inspired me to take out my laptop, make a drum loop, and write this song. It turned into a hilarious tale that I can thankfully say is not autobiographical. A few weeks later, I called on my good friend Ben Rector to see if he’d lend his voice and personality to the track. Ben is one of the best entertainers and songwriters I know so it was an absolute honor working together. It’s one of my favorite songs on Young Folk and I’m excited to finally release it.
“My hope is that ‘Young Folk’ will be a musical conversation starter between the youngest of listeners and the grownups who raise them. It was created to celebrate the child in each of us, and hopefully it reminds us all of how beautiful it is to gather with family and friends and sing songs together.”