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Japanese Jazz Prodigy Hiromi: 'Spiral'

Mr. DAVID WAS (Musician, Journalist): Jazz was born and raised in America, but has taken root in far corners of the globe, and has been embraced with fervor unknown on these ungrateful shores.

CHADWICK: It's musician and regular DAY TO DAY contributor, David Was.

Mr. WAS: This is especially true in Japan, where artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Sadao Watanabe have garnered worldwide acclaim. Add to their ranks a twenty-six-year-old keyboard phenom named Hiromi Uehara, or just Hiromi for short. Her new album, Spiral, is her third on the esteemed Telarc label, and follows on the heels of her wildly successful debut in 2003, which sold 100,000 units in Japan alone.

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Mr. WAS: Bonus DVD of a song entitled, Return of Kung-Fu World Champion, shows Hiromi to be a wild-haired waif, whose energy and intensity belie her petite frame.

Poised over an electronic keyboard, and a Yamaha grand piano, she rat-a-tats funky baselines on the former, and then elaborates harmonically and melodically on the latter as her two western bandmates try to keep pace with the impossibly brisk tempo.

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Mr. WAS: Her technique is formidable, and must have always been. At the age of 14, she performed with the Czech Philharmonic, then sat in with pianist Chick Corea three years later in Tokyo. She made a small pile of yen doing jingles for Nissan and others in Japan, then made her way to that renowned jazz hatchery, the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where she found a mentor in legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose biggest fan was always Miles Davis.

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Mr. WAS: Part of Hiromi's appeal is her catholic taste as a listener. With a professed love for Bach and Liszt and Oscar Peterson, one comes to understand her penchant for conventional pianism, and her sure sense of swing. But half of her heart belongs to musical adventures, like King Crimson and Sly Stone, leading Hiromi to resist being labeled as a mere jazz artist.

Other people can put a name on what I do, she says, it has elements of classical and rock and jazz, but I don't want to give it a name. If she won't, I will. Hiromi is a 21st century improviser, and defies easy pigeonholing. Like Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad; and she ain't bad at all.

CHADWICK: Musician and DAY TO DAY contributing writer David Was. The album by Hiromi Uehara is called Spiral. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Was