The Hiromi Trio Project were on fire at Yoshi’s Oakland last Thursday at 8 p.m., their first show of the weekend. Though the performance was a few parts fusion, there was solid classical jazz alongside it. The 90-minute set was largely a showcase of pieces from the group’s latest album, “Voice,” recorded with Anthony Jackson on bass guitar and Simon Phillips on drums joining Hiromi on piano. The group started the set with the original composition “Delusion” and within seconds they were in full gear as they had done all their warming up backstage prior to the set. It was a triumphant concert all the way through.
Hiromi stuck almost exclusively to the Yamaha grand, with only the occasional diversion to the keyboards, hitting a zenith in “Now or Never” as she played a call-and-response sequence between the keyboards on the left hand and the piano on the right. As much as I tend to hate keyboards finding their way into jazz, Hiromi’s deft handling of the board really added to the performance, giving her two different sounds to work with. At one point, she walked the four key chords of the piece on the piano to set up for an improvisational response on the keyboards.
Hiromi is a real virtuoso. Her mastery of stride piano is reminiscent of the great Oscar Peterson, and this is no exaggeration. There’s strength and control but a lot of musicality, playfulness and confidence. The show was a showcase of her talent: She was the only one in the trio to take extended solos to develop the themes. Jackson and Phillips worked great as backup, but it was such a treat for the focus to remain on the star pianist throughout. They aren’t in the same league as Hiromi, but Phillips made some nice, subtle turns matching the pitch of the cymbals to the melody in the piano.
After hearing Hiromi play, one could easily be surprised to discover that her tiny hands can only just reach an octave, because she covers the sound in keyboard. What she lacks in size she makes up for tenfold in technique and serious arm musculature. As her fingers dance across the keyboard, they occasionally become a blur because they are moving so fast.
The best piece of the evening was also the most audacious. Hiromi turned Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathétique’” into a blues ballad with glorious relish. This wasn’t the first time she has dared to transform classical music into fabulous jazz; she has also done the same with “Pachelbel’s Canon.” In her hands, “Pathétique” was a relaxed, sweet blues tune. Her solo on the piece had the control and even some of the trademarks of the Romantic period updated to the jazz era—from lush trills to not-quite-syncopated triads—but never strayed from the language of jazz and blues. It was a gorgeous, faithful adaptation—even Beethoven may have liked it.