Review: Opening night at The Gilmore an edge-of-the-seat, genre-hopping, triple ovation-al affair

KALAMAZOO, MI — I would not have seen that if it weren't for the Gilmore

That: A fireworks blast of a set Wednesday night, at Chenery Auditorium, the opening concert for the 2024 Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival. Hiromi Uehara, usually simply known as Hiromi, native of Hamamatsu, Japan, playing her deliriously fun mix of jazz past and future, backed by a genre-hopping, Grammy-nominated, modern string quartet out of New York, PUBLIQuartet.

Hiromi launched into the night with a flying leap at the keyboard, playing the big grand on the Chenery stage in a way that makes one want to laugh. Laugh, because Hiromi is clearly having too much fun, and she's including you, tossing your ears into a large bouncy castle. Her playing tends to be like an amusement park ride, out of control, but in control; loose but tight, full of surprises. 

Seeing a performance like this, live and in-person, not on a screen, reassures one that, yes, human beings can do this. They can make magic. This isn't some generative AI, though it does seem like Hiromi has far too many fingers than most humans. 

PUBLIQuartet — Curtis Stewart (violin), Chern Hwei Fung (violin), Nick Revel (viola), and Hamilton Berry (cello) — came into play backing her "Silver Lining Suite," (Concord Jazz, 2021), which she composed and recorded while isolated by the COVID pandemic. Its four movements, "Isolation," "The Unknown," 'Drifters" and "Fortitude," dove into moods that were more serious and ominous than fun. But the silver lining did shine.

To a tick-tick-tick rhythm, the quartet plucked strings, mechanically marking time in what must've been "The Unknown" part of the pandemic. Berry later showed how sad a cello can be, morphing into the blues. Stewart had a personal moment in his solo, emitting the sound of conflicting emotions, building to screeching strings that reflect the anxiety we all felt around the third month of sitting at home in 2020. 

Hiromi delivered lush drama through the suite but showed fortitude in upbeat bursts of jazz inventiveness. There, and at other times throughout the concert, she would look to the audience and nod with a wordless look of, "You know what I'm saying, right? You know what I'm saying!"

We didn't know what she was saying, but we felt what she was playing. Hiromi stood and got the audience to clap in time. The suite built up to a heavy rhythm, she and the quartet rocked out and may have ended COVID through the power of music. 

The audience gave the suite a standing ovation, but there was more.

But first, backstory, context

For a Second Wave story on this year's Gilmore, I suggested I review a concert, just like in olden times.

For a couple of decades, I covered arts and entertainment as a freelancer for the local daily newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, up until it, like newspapers across the country, felt forced to make cuts and stopped giving readers detailed views of the culture, high and low, happening all around them.

There were moments when I couldn't believe I got paid to do this. A lot of these moments were when I covered the Gilmore.

Some performers I knew. Dr. John, of the oldies hit “Right Place, Wrong Time,” played the Gilmore twice. I dig him, and I love all things funky out of New Orleans. 

Dick Hyman I reviewed in 2004. His career goes back to Benny Goodman, and in Kalamazoo, he mainly played his stylized take on 1930s stride piano. But I, being a nerdy record collector, know him from his freaky 1960s electronic Moog records. I didn't bring my records to the concert for him to autograph, fearing it would seem unprofessional.

Pink Martini I knew. In 2012, they gave the type of show that let me get creative, maybe a little too creative. I wrote that they're "a strong pop-culture cocktail of the type grownups enjoyed in the '60s. At times it was a foreign liquor nursed in a 3 a.m. bar in Tokyo, alone and haunted; other times it was rum punch in the all-night party world of pre-Castro Havana, or a classic martini in Vegas back when it was cool and mobbed-up." (You should know that this exotic pop retro orchestra is back to play the Gilmore, this May 10 at Miller Auditorium.) 

But for a lot of Gilmore concerts, I was clueless. Review experimental keyboardist Phyllis Chen? Oh, you mean the Phyllis Chen of toy piano fame? In 2010, for a Gilmore audience Chen stuck a bit of "Strawberry Fields Forever'' inside a teapot, then combined toy piano with boombox so "it sounded as if someone had used a shrink ray on a car blasting hip hop on megawatt speakers." Read my review online, maybe it'll make more sense as a whole. 

Some people might say, 'That doesn't even sound like music." But others got to experience something amazing and unique, something you'd never see in Kalamazoo if it weren't for the Gilmore.

Reviewing these concerts got dangerously routine. It was 2014, just like every other year during the biannual festival. On a warm May day, lilac blooms perfuming the air, I pedaled my bike downtown to see Cuban-born Nachito Herrera play a lunchtime set of very Afro-Cuban jazz. He led the audience to sing along with the Cuban classic "Guantanamera." I got back on my bike, back to the home office, and wrote the review.

This could go on forever, I assumed. It's a sweet job, seeing amazing talent from around the world, performers, and genres you'd rarely or never see in a city the size of Kalamazoo. But sadly, that was one of the last Gilmore sets I reviewed for the Gazette.

Of course, I could buy a ticket, and I have. But I wanted to see concerts like it was my job.

So, what if, I suggested, for a Second Wave story on the 2024 Gilmore, I simply review the festival opener? Hiromi? PUBLIQuartet? Never heard of them, but I googled, watched videos, and suspected I'd get that same old amazing experience of seeing incredible talent I would likely never see otherwise, creating music in ways I never would've expected.

Like the end of Wednesday night's concert

Hiromi flew through a montage of old jazz styles, soaring Gershwin-ish Jazz Age sounds and frantic stride, with hints of manic silent movie piano — she called that one "Mr. C.C." which "stands for Charlie Chaplin," she said. Then another piece, where she got more unconventional, reaching into the grand to pluck bass strings and uttering a loud "Uh!" with each pluck. That got her the second of three standing ovations for the night.

She started playing again and looked over her shoulder to the quartet standing offstage. At her signal, PUBLIQuartet trotted out like eager ponies to the starting gate.

We weren't given the title, but for the closing piece, the strings got very Eastern European folk-y, the type of European folk where each musician is pushing the beat, faster, faster, galloping as if they are horses in a race. (For example, here'sthe Romanian group Taraf de Haidouks showing how it's done.) 

Each member of the quintet soloed, outdoing each other, bows flying, faster, faster. And with a shout of "Hey! Ho!" from the group, Hiromi crashed through it all to bring the race to a roaring end.

I would've never seen that, not in Kalamazoo, if it weren't for The Gilmore.

The 17th Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival is underway now through May 10. Classical, jazz, funk, show-tunes, South African jazz, Celtic folk, and other sounds from the familiar and otherworldly will be in Kalamazoo and other spots around Southwest Michigan. For more information, see the vast lineup here.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see