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Young pianist's 'big energy' is a key to her quick success

Most jazz students would be happy with this plan: Graduate from college, spend several years as a sideman for established musicians, and one day start leading your own band. Then maybe with the right combination of talent and luck you'll land a deal with a major record label.

Hiromi Uehara has bypassed all that. A few weeks before she graduated from Berklee College of Music last spring, the Telarc label -- home to such giants as Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson -- issued her debut album, "Another Mind." The 24-year-old pianist has been performing around the world for the past few months; Sunday she plays the final concert of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, sharing a bill with the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Natalie Cole.

Hiromi -- she goes by her first name -- sounds floored by her sudden success.

"I'm very, very happy when I find out people like my stuff," she says. "I really appreciate it. But at the same time I feel I've got to work harder. I am such a maniac. I love exploring. I love digging harder. I am always thinking about music. It is in my blood."

Hiromi grew up in the countryside in Japan, where she began playing piano at age 6. "My mom always wanted to play the piano, but she never could," she says. When the time came to enroll in college, however, Hiromi decided to study law, like her brother, who is six years older.

"I always wanted to do music as a career, but I also wanted to explore more things," she says. "Studying music is not the only way to feel the music."

Hiromi continued to play piano in college, and an executive at a company that produces commercial jingles happened to attend one of her concerts. The ad exec offered her a job, and at 18 she began writing jingles, including one for Nissan that was popular in Japan.

After hearing her own commercial, she decided she needed to move to the United States and study music at Berklee. She arrived four years ago, at age 20, and studied orchestration and composition before focusing again on her piano skills. One of her instructors, Richard Evans, borrowed a disc of her compositions and was so impressed that he called his friend Ahmad Jamal, the legendary jazz pianist, and played the music for him over the phone.

"In a few weeks," she says, "I had a meeting with [Jamal]. And then everything happened."

Jamal phoned his friends at Telarc, and soon the recording was in the works; in fact, Jamal and Evans produced it. It is a wide-ranging romp through a variety of jazz styles: There's the ferocious acoustic jazz-rock of "XYZ," the soul jazz of "Summer Rain," the bluesy "Joy," the jazz-funk-meets-hip-hop "010101" (on which she plays synthesizer), the roiling, Latin-tinged bop of "Dancando No Paraiso," the avant-garde experiment "Another Mind," and the boogie-woogie workout "The Tom and Jerry Show." But it's hard to attach a label to any of the tunes, because other styles invariably seep in.

"I listen to so many kinds of music," says Hiromi, whose modesty and soft-spoken voice are in stark contrast to her thunderous, confident music. "I love everything that has big energy. For me, there's not much difference between Frank Zappa and Franz Liszt. They inspire me just as much."

Her energy was on full display in a May concert with her trio at Scullers, where she dazzled the crowd with a swaggering, acoustic-based fusion of rock, jazz, and funk that reveled in thick, lower-octave chords and unnerving, rumbling passages. But she insists she is still learning, and she says she could barely contain herself the day her album was released last spring.

"The first day my album was in the CD store, I ran into the store at 11 a.m.," says Hiromi, who continues to live in Boston. "I jumped. I wanted to scream. Oh my God, it was amazing. At the same time, this is just the beginning. I'm so grateful to start my career. I know it's much harder to continue it. I always want to make improvements. I always want to work hard to go to another stage. That was also the day I realized, `OK, it's started. Now what?' "

The rest of Tanglewood

It is a monster lineup this weekend in Lenox. Here is what to expect. Ticket prices vary; call 888-266-1200 or visit Tonight at 8: Gato Barbieri, the Michel Camilo Trio, and Jonathan "Juanito" Pascual.

Tomorrow at 3 p.m.: Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" with Norah Jones. Tomorrow at 8 p.m.: Cassandra Wilson, and Kenny Barron's "Canta Brasil" with Trio da Paz.

Sunday at 1 p.m.: Donal Fox's trio, in a tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Sunday at 3 p.m.: "Celebrating the Year of the Blues" featuring Jay McShann with the Duke Robillard Band, Louisiana Red, the Nicole Nelson Band, and Kendrick Oliver & the New Life Jazz Orchestra. Sunday at 8 p.m.: Natalie Cole, the Wynton Marsalis Septet, and Hiromi.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at

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