In the 1960s, the term “energy music” was sometimes used as an alternative description of “free jazz.” In the following decade, it could be applied to the approach of the most intense jazz- rock groups. Hiromi Uehara—a 32-year- old Japanese acoustic pianist and electric keyboardist who has been recording simply as Hiromi since her 2003 Telarc debut, Another Mind—is a kindred spirit to fusion pioneer Chick Corea and his 70s Return to Forever band. But her classical training and her affection for such acoustic jazz piano forebears as Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal allow her to move fluidly between categories as she maintains her forceful style.
On Voice, her seventh album, Hiromi’s energy shines like never before. Much credit goes to Michael Bishop’s recording, which pushes the piano, synths, bass, drums, and cymbals right into your room where their presence—sharp-edged or rounded and burnished at exactly the right moments—pulsates against the silence. But Voice is more than one of best-engineered piano records this side of ECM; it is an hour of virtually nonstop excitement, rising to peak after peak, capped by a perfectly placed five-minute denouement that allows your burning ears to cool down.
For some listeners, the in-your-face technical facility of Hiromi and her new collaborators—veterans Anthony Jackson (who has snapped bass for Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, and many others) and drummer Simon Phillips (an exacting powerhouse heard with Judas Priest, Toto, The Who, and Stanley Clarke)—might get in the way of the music. Indeed, this is a power trio that owes its precision more to the prog-rock of King Crimson and Yes than to the delicacy of Bill Evans. But its mathematical discipline, evident in the breakneck unisons on almost every tune, provides a failsafe chassis for each song and keeps the wheels from falling off when the G-force hits five or six.
The title track opens the album deceptively, in an elegiac mood with Hiromi hitting spare piano chords and single notes at a dirge-like tempo. Then, after a pause for suspense, one note hammers like a telegraph key and leads to chunky chords interlocked with the bass, a rush of cymbals, and an emphatic roll across the tom-tom drums—and we’re off to the races. Your heart pounds as the tension builds, and you’re left breathless at the stop-on-a-dime ending.
The dynamics are similar on most of the next eight original pieces, although the trio applies them to a variety of genre references: acoustic hard bop (“Flashback”), funk with wah-wah synthesizer growls (“Now or Never”), romantic crossover balladry (“Temptation”), and Spanish-tinged epic-movie music (“Labyrinth”). Even the questing solo piano feature, “Haze,” solidifies into a towering fortress. It’s unusual to think of Beethoven as offering a breather, but the famous adagio cantabile from his Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathetique, does just that at album’s end, and it’s much needed after the blockbuster “Delusion” and its door-slamming finish. Hiromi gets bluesy on Pathetique, hints at eruption, and then pulls back as Phillips’ brushes and Jackson’s ringing bass notes buoy her stair-step climb to a close that lets you put your jaw back in place for a smile of relief and satisfaction.