Hiromi sets the Sonicbloom standard
Beyond Standard, the latest release on Telarc from Hiromi's Sonicbloom, was already completed when Hiromi Uehara and her band played the Arts Festival this year, but I don't recall much of the music on it featuring in the concert.
Time Control was then the current release, and the tunes accordingly came mostly from that, but anybody who was present will have no difficulty recognising either the sound or the spirit of the performances on this varied and energetic set.
I always find it disconcerting when a CD turns up with a sort of instruction manual on how best to play it, and this is a hybrid SACD with different layers accessible to different machines.
There is a straightforward stereo version of the album, which anything capable of playing a CD should be automatically able to recognise, an audiophile stereo version on the SACD mix, and a multi-channel surround mix also on the SACD. For either of the sonically superior SACD versions you have to programme your player, if you have a compatible one, which I do, but it still took me about 20 minutes to figure out how to get into the right menu.
Still, nothing in life is simple, and somewhat to my surprise it was worth it. I have very few SACDs, and for the most part the 5.1 remixes of old jazz albums I've heard to date have been something of a disappointment.
Beyond Standard opens with an audio reference to a much earlier era, with what sounds like an old gramophone needle being dropped into the scratchy run-in groove of a 78 featuring a solo pianist playing Softly As In A Morning Sunrise. Then Martin Valihora's drums queue Sonicbloom's very different sounding version of the same tune.
Uehara's previous recordings have focused mostly on her own compositions, but Beyond Standard takes familiar melodies as its starting point, although not exclusively jazz ones.
Alongside such familiar improvisational starting points as the opening track, Caravan, and I've Got Rhythm, are Debussy's Claire De Lune, and the 1960s Japanese pop tune Ue Wo Muite Aruko, better known in the west as Sukiyaki.
My Favourite Things appears, but without the genuflection to Coltrane that one might have expected. It seems Hiromi is a Julie Andrews fan. 'The Sound of Music is one of my favourite old musical films,' she says. 'I wanted to express my favourite scenes in the movie with my favourite things in the music; playing with the time signature, dynamics, intensity and silence'.
A surprising inclusion is Led Boots, a tune written by pianist Max Middleton for Jeff Beck and which featured on his 1976 album Wired. It has been reworked here with intelligence and wit.
The leader yields to the temptation of returning to one of her own tunes, XYG, previously called XYZ and featured on Another Mind in 2003, and in her own words 'now reborn with guitar'.
This is very much a group affair, recorded live in the studio, and mixed so that the contributions of all four instrumentalists are clearly audible at all times, particularly in the surround sound mode which gives you a feeling of being in the room with them. Nothing has been 'fixed in the mix'.
Drummer Valihora and bassist Tony Grey have been with Uehara for some time, while guitarist David Fiuczynski has established himself as a solo voice in the group of almost equal prominence to the leader.
The one full-length performance for which the group lays out is the solo closing number, I've Got Rhythm, which ends the album as it began, with solo piano. The performance is dedicated to one of Uehara's mentors, Oscar Peterson, and is clearly heartfelt. She and the band continue to make interesting progress.