Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review: Hiromi - Beyond Standard

Having run out of words of praise in the English language for her outstanding career to date, four albums in of entirely self-penned compositions, and with we imagine a warehouse in Tokyo stuffed with the numerous awards for each of those four albums, Hiromi has chosen for her fifth release to be entirely made up of covers. We all knew it would come someday; a favourite performer, having made four stunning and brilliant works, and lapped up our near fanatical words of adoration, now tired from the strains of touring, decides to half-heartedly mail in the fifth album with some covers of some well-known standards.

Except, you’ve forgotten that this is Hiromi, haven’t you?

Using the same Sonicbloom band she recorded the earlier ‘Time Control’ with (electric guitar-piano-bass-drums), Hiromi here tackles not only a set of standards, but also some favourites that are distinctly non-standard. Opening with an intro taken from ‘Time Control’, the super-charged quartet launch into the Hammerstein-Romberg ‘Softly As A Morning Sunrise’, which takes on an other-worldly and enchanting quality. It is a beautiful start to the record and also highlights Hiromis modus-operandi for the following pieces.

This isn’t a tribute or homage to these standards, more a deconstruction and reconstruction. Here Hiromi is breaking the pieces down and putting them back together in a way that flavours each piece with her own distinct and quirky personality. The world doesn’t need another take on the dusty favourite ‘My Favourite Things’, so why bother? Hiromi also appears to have asked this question, and the answer appears to have been “to have some fun with it”. And that’s exactly what the band do here.

Debussys ‘Claire De Lune’ for example, is invigorating in the fresh take on the piece, moving the music from something classical in nature to something jazz. And the closing of the tune, with each of the band making individual expressions, is easily one of the album high points. Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ on the other hand becomes an energetic fireball of a song, with some fluid and catchy guitar work by Fiuczynski and some simply mind-bogglingly fast rapid-fire piano solos.

Other covers here are far from standard; Japanese pop tune ‘Ue Wo Muite Aruko’ is a pleasant joy, while Jeff Becks ‘Led Boots’ and a cover of Hiromis own ‘XYZ – here re-christened ‘XYG’ allows the guitar to stretch out, whilst not pummelling the listener with the sonic overload sometimes present on the earlier Sonicbloom recording.

And of course, because this is Hiromi, things wouldn’t be complete without at least one sublimely nutty piece, equal parts inspired and insane. Like the earlier ‘Spiral’ and ‘Another Mind’, with their both spectacular and outstanding ‘Return Of Kung-Fu Champion’ and ‘The Tom And Jerry Show’ respectively, the best is kept for last. Almost a tribute, in the style of playing, ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ is Hiromi Uehara as Oscar Peterson - a stunning six-minute solo piano that oozes fun and will raise a smile to any listener.

A superb work from beginning to end, ‘Beyond Standard’ easily lives up to its name - which in lesser hands would simply have been a prompt to goad the critics - and Hiromi continues to be a fun and engaging constantly evolving musical presence. Anyone who was put off by the addition of electric guitarist Dave Fiuczynski will be pleasantly surprised here, with his subtle and elegant more refined contributions. And Hiromi herself only gets better. One day years into the future she may choose to mail it in, but from the evidence on display here, she’d really struggle to do anything less than interesting and brilliant. Five albums in, Hiromi is five for five, and ‘Beyond Standard’ is exquisite.


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