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Pianist Hiromi is 'the whole orchestra'

By Shanon Cook, CNN
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Pianist talks to her piano
  • Jazz pianist Hiromi is very aggressive with pianos -- slamming them, plucking them
  • She also talks to pianos when she gets to a new city: "I want them to remember me"
  • Hiromi is married to Japanese fashion designer Mihara Yasuhiro

New York (CNN) -- The term "tickling the ivories" could never do justice to what the feisty jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara does when she plays.

Soft-spoken and diminutive she may be, but her performance is a blow-your-hair-back display of drama and athleticism. She'll stand on sneakered feet for great lengths of time, forcing her full weight -- such that it is -- into the keys. She'll bring her forearm crashing down as if to make sure those in the back row are paying attention. Sometimes, reaching a hand inside the piano, she'll manipulate its strings to imitate the sound of an upright bass.

For the Shizuoka, Japan, native, Hiromi's stage show is as solo as it gets -- it's just her and a Yamaha -- and she says it's all about taking responsibility.

"I have to be a bass player, I have to be a drummer and I have to be the whole orchestra all by myself," she says. "It's a lot of work."

Not that she's complaining. Classically trained from the age of 6 -- she's now 30 -- Hiromi lives for challenges, and likens her penchant for improvising during her live shows to climbing a mountain: Finding "another route" every day is vital to keep things interesting.

"The more risky it gets, the more fun I have," she says.

Hiromi, who goes by just her first name, is currently touring Europe and North America promoting her first solo piano album, "Place To Be" (Telarc).

She says the album is a tribute to her 20s, a decade defined by constant traveling and performing around the globe.

"I went to many places that I felt at home and met great people who really welcomed me," she said. "I really wanted to thank them by writing songs for them."

The first track on the album is "BQE," a dizzying homage to the hectic Brooklyn-Queens Expressway she spends much time on (Hiromi lives in Brooklyn). She also recreates the sound of slot machines on "Viva! Vegas."

Dressing up is never a strain for Hiromi: She's married to Japanese fashion designer Mihara Yasuhiro, known for his work with Puma. Hiromi says he creates all her stage outfits, which need to allow her plenty of room to move.

Looking good is especially important given that Hiromi goes on a "blind date," as she calls it, every day she's on the road. That's how she describes dates with her pianos.

They're all different, she says, and getting to know each one before a performance is important to her.

So how does she break the ice? Well, Hiromi says talking to the instrument is a good start.

"[I'll say] how have you been? I'm Hiromi. Tonight we'll collaborate. I hope you're in a good mood," she says with a laugh. "I sound like a crazy person ... but I feel when a piano is happy, and I feel when they find that moment to be alive. I want them to remember me."