Review: Generation Next: Piano with Eldar & Hiromi 

*****

Generation Next: Piano with Eldar & Hiromi
Center for the Performing Arts
Saturday, April 21

Returning Saturday night from the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts’ double-bill, Generation Next: Piano with Eldar & Hiromi, I was honestly torn between wanting to practice eight hours a day and wanting to sell my piano! What a jazz piano lover’s dream team.

The April 21 event was sponsored by Jazz Roots Education, an outreach organization dedicated to exposing children and young adults to jazz. It began with a four o’clock Q & A session in the Palladium auditorium with 25-year-old Russian-born pianist Eldar Dijangirov and his trio. Though only about fifteen young musicians (and several parents) were present, the repartee was spirited. Of note was a discussion about how parents can keep their kids interested in music. The answer, essentially: start ‘em early, expose ‘em to lots of great music, and hope it sticks. Eldar himself began piano at age five, early enough not to question his parents’ insistence on long hours of practice. By age thirteen, when children naturally rebel, he’d become so immersed that music was all he wanted to do.

Next, in the Palladium’s South Lobby, jazz educator Dr. Monika Herzig (Indiana University) engaged the same group with an interactive history of jazz piano, from Scott Joplin to Art Tatum, Bud Powell to the evening’s scintillating performers. Discussing the different stages, including ragtime, stride and bebop, helped us all make more sense out of the concert to come. Improvising, she said, was simply “making it up as you go,” within certain parameters of harmony and rhythm. This seemed to help cut through the mystique and intimidation of the art form.

But the best was yet to come — the evening performances of the two pianists.

Eldar, dapper in his tawny business suit, opened his set full-throttle with a burning solo rendition of the Sammy Cahn standard (and signature song of the late Bill Evans) “I Should Care,” from his latest album, Three Stories. After full-keyboard chromatic runs and other technical fits and flurries, the pianist locked the tempo and began the tune in earnest. His version, beginning ala Oscar Peterson with “stride” style before moving into straight-ahead swing, promptly brought to mind Dr. Herzig’s pre-concert jazz history lesson.

The now revved-up audience next thrilled to a thundering modal Latin piece, which introduced upright bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Ludwig Alfonso. They are both incredible players in their own right, but a bit overshadowed by the pianist.

Next came a blistering rendition of the bebop standard “Donna Lee” (how can his fingers move that fast?). After a brisk piano intro, Panascia and Alfonso jumped in to support some of Eldar’s most impressive right-hand soloing of the night, again running the gamut from Art Tatum, to Peterson, with of course Evans and even McCoy Tyner thrown into the mix.

Late into his set, Eldar dramatically shifted gears and played a haunting, tango-esque “Besame Mucho.” The arrangement, which brought out a more serious, sophisticated harmonic and melodic side, left one wanting more.

After intermission, short-statured but sure-footed Hiromi Uehara traipses across the Palladium stage in a black jumper with black leggings and leopard-print high-tops, her black hair scrunched above her grinning face. She sits, adjusts, then readjusts the stool height, sets her hands atop the keys, hesitates as if meditating, then sinks into the dark, moody, Beethoven-esque intro to “Voice,” the title track from her latest album. Darkness soon fades into a bright 7/8 techno feel, reminiscent of the '70s rockers Rush, replete with lightning unison lines and kicks flawlessly executed by drummer Simon Phillips and legendary electric bassist Anthony Jackson.

Instantly and effortlessly, the pianist displays her superhuman technique—lightning repetition of a single right hand note against complex chordal melodies in the left, all the while maintaining poise enough to smile at the audience, reassuring us that yes, I am human. Whoa! Just when we thought we’d heard it all the hour before, our amazement gets ratcheted up a few more notches.

Hiromi performed lots of rapid-fire show-stoppers, as expected, most from her latest album, Voice, all made to look easy, as if she were devoting but half her concentration.

But just when it seems the pianist knows only fortissimo, she eases into her single solo piece of the night, “Place to Be," from her album of the same title, demonstrating that she can create intensity and finesse even at pianissimo.

Hiromi’s sensitive recasting of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, which has long attracted jazzers, was the evening’s highlight. Easing into this lush, lyrical piece, she played to about bar six “as written,” then couldn’t resist bending the harmony and the rhythm her own sweet way, each pass-through an imaginative re-harmonization of the first eight bars. Jackson and Phillips deftly followed every twist and turn.

Brilliant playing aside, Hiromi is plain fun to watch, her auditory performance delightfully enhanced by inadvertent sways of the back, shimmies of the shoulders, lollings of the head, big smiles projected to the audience, as if sharing some irresistibly funny joke. Surely, she’s having more fun than anyone in the house.

It seems interesting to note that the two most explosive pianists of the age are both, well, rather petite, or “physically understated.” Where does that power come from? And, while both bring exciting new life and electricity to the art, Hiromi, at age 33, is clearly the more seasoned, harmonically sophisticated, and lyrically expressive pianist of the two. But it will be interesting to listen to Eldar mature in the years to come.

This rare treat was not lost on the audience which, filling just over half the auditorium, extended a standing ovation to Eldar, and three to a smiling, almost giddy Hiromi.

Hiromi performs "Voice."

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