“Mind if I put on some music?” asked Eleanor.
“Sure,” Gwen replied.
Eleanor scrolled through her playlists, trying to find a suitable jazz album – jazz was always her ideal genre to listen to while doing other work. Many a paper in college had been completed to the tune of Esperanza Spalding’s upright bass solos.
Another Mind, the début album from jazz virtuoso Hiromi Uehara, was also a frequent backdrop to Eleanor’s studying, but not the one she settled on that afternoon. Despite having not listened to it before, she settled on Time Control – a later album from Hiromi, featuring the guitarist David Fiuczynski. As long as there’s no vocals, Eleanor hoped. She crossed her fingers and pressed play.
The immediate start of the album was classic Hiromi: a rapid series of notes in a minor key, hanging along in the air before being backed up by a shockwave of guitar, piano, and bass. Before the song hit the one-minute mark, the melody had finally settled, unsettlingly, into a regular rhythm.
“Turn it down a little,” Dania asked, as Fiuczynski broke into a moderate solo. Eleanor adjusted the volume.
Gwen, for her part, was balancing her budget when the music began, and quickly put her numbers aside to listen more closely to what was happening. “Jazz” didn’t begin to encompass the album’s music – the electric guitar, modified with pedals, fought a battle against the keyboard’s “wobble” setting, giving the music the unfamiliar yet distinct feel of an unholy coupling between Eric Clapton and Daft Punk. Meanwhile, when the keyboard’s settings returned to “Baby Grand” in the song’s repeating chorus, the crisp notes added classical composers into the family tree.
“Who’s the artist?” Gwen asked, as the opening track came to an end.
“Who are they?”
“Hiromi is the piano player,” Eleanor explained. “She’s this incredible jazz pianist. She has a few other albums of more traditional jazz, but this is the first one with that guitarist in the band. So the group renamed itself ‘Hiromi’s Sonicbloom.'”
“Nice,” Gwen said, turning her attention back to the music. “She’s like a modern day Liszt.” The piano and bass kicked off the second song with a dry walking rhythm, as the guitar spiraled out along the way.
“Or maybe, Liszt is her predecessor,” Gwen rephrased.
“I’ve not actually listened to this album all the way through before,” Eleanor said, obscuring the fact that she hadn’t listened to any of it before. She masked her surprise in assuredness: “But it’s a much more rock-inspired album than the others.”
“For sure,” Gwen agreed.
They continued to listen as the quartet tore through the second track, “time out.” The guitar dropped away from it’s shredding rock style for a strange solo in the middle of the song – almost Theramin-like in its rounded voicing, with Fiuczynski building on staccato rhythms in quick succession to punctuate the sparse backing of the drum kit. Notes seemed to moan against the regular tempo, wanting to return to the arhythmic style of the premiere track.
“I love the distortion,” Gwen added. “The pedals that guitarist is using are giving the song another interesting dimension.
“It’s interesting to compare it with Hiromi’s other albums,” Eleanor said. “Her technique is very similar here, but when it’s paired with a more rock-style tone, the meaning changes.”
“Rock came out of jazz,” Gwen reminded her. “There’s a natural connection.”
“Sure,” Eleanor said. “But it doesn’t feel like meeting halfway between the two. Rather, she’s smashing the two extremes of the genre together in one album.”
Another impressive moment in the second track involved Hiromi matching bassist Tony Grey note-for-note on a long submelodic run, before Fiuczynski could return to the song. Gwen nodded her approval, then returned to her budgeting.
Eleanor smiled. She tossed a glance at Dania, who seemed to be ignoring the music so far – as far as Eleanor could tell. Dania’s adoration for Alabama Shakes and other experimental bands of that ilk kept Eleanor from entirely writing off the possibility that Gwen would be the only other member of the group to enjoy the album. Jazz was a hard sell these days, but Hiromi was doing her best to keep the genre developing – even in an eleven-year-old album.
The song continued to provide a backsplash to the girls’ individual work, before Dania, unexpectedly, glanced over her laptop and towards Eleanor’s speakers.
“Was that – they did the circus song in there,” she sputtered.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“They did the thing, the melody from the circus,” Dania repeated. She attempted to sing part of Fucik’s “Entrance of the Gladiators,” better known to most as “that clown song.”
“Where?” Eleanor said. She dragged the tab on the phone back a few seconds.
“Listen for it, it’s obvious,” Dania said.
The two listened intently to Hiromi’s solo – her left hand striking her own irregular backing chords while the right roamed freely around the upper half of the keys. Eleanor almost thought she heard it once, before the solo turned a corner and – sure enough, five minutes and forty seconds in, Fucik’s theme emerged.
“That’s crazy!” Eleanor said. “What a weird thing to throw in. Gwen, listen to this.”
“I was listening,” she said.
“I’m loving this album,” Eleanor said. “It’s got this weird sound to it – everything is distorted, notice that? Like, she’s not using the normal piano settings at all.”
“It’s like she keeps changing that setting on the keyboard where you can make the piano sound like different instruments,” Dania agreed. “Or like it’s underwater. Or electronic.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Eleanor repeated. “Everything she’s choosing is making the music sound more distorted.”
“Is it distortion?” Gwen wondered. “The music seems mastered fine. Everything is in balance, save for moments with solos and stuff.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Eleanor said. “I don’t mean ‘distortion’ in that it sounds broken. It’s more that she’s softening the blows of each note by making everything sound distant or electronic.”
“Wavy,” Dania said. “I’d call it wavy music.”
“Call it what you will,” Gwen smiled. “No rules in jazz.”
The trio returned once again to their individual work. The songs continued – the fourth track, “deep into the night,” was a more traditional jazz chart, the kind that Hiromi would likely release as a single. Only Fiuczynski’s arctic guitar melody over the opening and closing passages hinted at the song’s place in the larger, uncategorizable maelstrom of Time Control.
The fifth, however, got Eleanor bopping her head almost immediately. When she glanced to the side to catch Gwen’s reaction to the music, she grinned wide to see Gwen’s head also bopping in rhythm. An even-tempered bass riff reminiscent of a Western morphed into the driving force of a police chase, as the song dared any listener to categorize it.
By the central section, where the tempo dropped into a relaxed swing, Gwen and Eleanor were trading excited glances – which made it more unexpected when Dania groaned from her chair.
“Can we skip this one?” she protested, her head flung backwards.
Eleanor shot a sideways glance towards Dania, eyes bugged. “Why skip the best one?” she asked.
“Is this the best one?” Dania asked. Under the conversation, a squealing melody that could have been either Hiromi or Fiuczynski plodded along.
“Yeah, it’s got the good energy,” Eleanor said. “Listen to that distortion! You can barely hear the attack of each note. It’s so dreamlike.”
“This is dreamlike?” Dania asked, the drums pounding along.
“Not every dream is languid,” Gwen reminded. “If there’s anyone that dreams at 100 mph, it’s Hiromi.”
“Oh, don’t speak like you’re an expert on Hiromi because you’ve listened to five of her songs, Gwen,” Dania countered, eyelids drooped. “I’m just hearing inconsistency.”
“I prefer to think of it as ‘variety,’ Eleanor said. “Too many people write off jazz as a genre because all the songs ‘sound the same.’ I think Hiromi does a good job of disproving that, and hopefully bringing new people into the fold.”
“I mean, sure,” Dania said. “But when you’re trying to listen to the album while working on other things, it’s distracting when the style keeps changing!”
Eleanor glanced at the speakers. The quartet had returned to the slow swing melody – if it could still be called that, despite the constant modernist interruptions from the guitar and bass.
“That’s fair,” Eleanor ceded. “Hiromi’s thinking is more obvious on the album than other jazz artists. I mean, with the Jazz Age musicians, you have to dig for it. But it’s clear that Hiromi is making strides to diversify and modernize jazz music.”
“Which is your code,” Dania added, “for ‘difficult to listen to while doing other things.'”
Eleanor sighed. “I suppose so.”
“That doesn’t make it bad, however,” Gwen countered. “There’s much to be appreciated about the album and her work on it. You’ll have to AirDrop me the album, Eleanor.”
“I have her discography, if you want it,” Eleanor admitted. “Dania, you might like some of her earlier stuff. It’s only the Hiromi’s Somicbloom albums that are this experimental. The others are…”
“Well, I hesitate to use ‘traditional’ to describe anything Hiromi does,” Eleanor said. “There’s still electric shocks through the music, always. But it’s more restrained to a few core ideas.”
“Whereas,” Gwen said. “Time Control seems like it’s dealing with a ton of stimuli: distortion, arhythmic construction, genre blending, and so on.”
Eleanor also turned her head to Gwen. “Yes, I’ve taken a music theory class too, Gwen. I get it.”
Gwen’s eyes narrowed, and she tucked herself back behind her laptop.
“Point is,” Eleanor continued, turning back to Dania, “I think you’d enjoy Hiromi if you listen in isolation. It’s jazz that takes center stage, not that you can necessarily use as window dressing.”
“Then why are you using it as window dressing now?” Dania asked.
“Oh, I can work over anything,” Eleanor beamed. “I’m versatile.”
Dania exhaled. “Good to know.”
As Dania returned to her laptop, Eleanor turned the music down a few notches, out of courtesy – just loud enough for her to hear.
Image Credit: 久我山散人