For the final ten days of June, I’ll be counting down the ten best albums that fell within my radar during the first half of 2016. Each day, I’ll reveal the next album on the list along with an informal review. This will lead to July 1st, a major release day for albums, when I’ll post an updated version of my Most Anticipated Albums of 2016 list. Enjoy!

#7: Spark by Hiromi / The Trio Project
Released February 12 by Concord Records / Telarc Digital


If you place seasoned session musicians in a studio together, you’ll get music that’s, if nothing else, impressive. However, where’s the line between playing scales and solos versus actually writing songs? Landing fully on the side of the “song” is Japanese piano prodigy Hiromi Uehara and her Trio Project, making their fourth album with 2016’s Spark. Enlisting contraband bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips, the latter making his second appearance in the Trio following 2014’s fantastic Alive, Hiromi leads these nine progressive compositions of instrumental jazz, most songs averaging eight to nine minutes in length. Although Hiromi composed everything herself, the rhythm section does an impeccable job becoming the perfect extension of the pianist’s frantic finger work. All three players get plenty of moments to shine–Phillips sometimes threatens to steal the spotlight from Hiromi–but the playing maintains a classical, orchestral sense of evolving upon a theme. Even on “In a Trance,” (which is liable to put listeners in a trance-like state), where Phillips is left alone for two whole minutes of soloing, the song never veers off into self-indulgence; there’s always a sense that songwriting is prioritized over showing off. Set highlight “Dilemma” does a notably excellent job of establishing a great theme, expanding upon that foundation for seven minutes of roller-coaster-dynamics, then returning to the original theme for a bravura ending. The good thing about a jazz trio is that there’s enough going on to please jazz aficionados, while also adding the restraint to not scare off newer fans of jazz. In fact, the only moment to fully exit the beautiful and enter the bizarre is the oddly out-of-place synth solo halfway through “What Will Be, Will Be,” a song that’s otherwise up to par with everything else here. Live videos of the Trio reveal how Hiromi keeps a Clavia Nord Lead 2 atop her grand piano, prepped and ready to add simmering pads to the mix, such as during the album’s introductory title track. On “What Will…,” the synth does little besides adding some variety; yet that’s a minor qualm to hold against such a confidently written and perfectly performed record. I highly recommend Spark not only to fans of any sort of jazz–from smooth to experimental–but also to anyone dying to hear songs that aren’t comprised of the same three or four chords. It’ll feel like a breath of fresh air…during a sunset…while sitting in a jacuzzi…drinking a glass of wine… You get my point.

Shout-outs to Thom Jurek from AllMusic, who introduced this album to me with his sparkling 4.5 star review, and to Grimey’s Nashville, my favorite record store, which serendipitously had one copy of this CD in stock a few hours after I read the AllMusic review.

Check out “Wonderland” on Youtube.

Read the review for album #8.

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