Sukiyaki and beyond: Hiromi Uehara, music, war and peace, Chick Corea, and others

by Bill Benzon

You may or may not know that sukiyaki is a beef-based Japanese hot-pot dish. But I’m not talking about food. I’m talking about music, specifically, a Japanese pop song entitled “Ue o Muite Arukō” (“I Look Up as I Walk”) which was a hit by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961 in Japan, 18 years before Hiromi Uehara was born. It became one of the world’s best selling singles of all time (13 million copies) and has been recorded countless times by singers all over the world. [Various versions on YouTube.] It was issued in the United States in 1963 as “Sukiyaki”, where it went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Why “Sukiyaki”? Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s a novelty song about the dish? No, it’s not. It has nothing to do with food. According to Wikipedia:

The lyrics tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while he is walking so that his tears will not fall, with the verses describing his memories and feelings. [Lyricist Rokusuke] Ei wrote the lyrics while walking home from a Japanese student protest against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, expressing his frustration and dejection at the failed efforts. However, the lyrics were purposefully generic so that they might refer to any lost love.

The melody is wistful and haunting. I would imagine that is what propelled the song to international fame. Many of the cover versions use different lyrics. As for the renaming in America, it’s about marketing. “Sukiyaki” is a Japanese word that Americans would recognize as Japanese.

Here’s the original version:

Notice the whistled sections – appropriate to the origin story, which I remember from my childhood.

Hiromi Uehara

But what does this have to do with Hiromi Uehara? Well, she is Japanese and has performed the song. Admittedly that’s not much of a connection, but then that’s how the world is, no? Lots of things going on, some tightly connected, others not connected at all, and still others only loosely connected, more or less by happenstance.

Notice that the happenstance that gave rise to this song is about failed security negotiations between the United States and Japan. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan is a legacy of World War II. It was first signed in 1951 and was revised in 1960 and that’s what occasioned student protests. Between those dates Tomoyuki Tanaka (producer) and Ishirō Honda (director) filmed Godzilla (Gojira) thus starting the longest running film franchise in history. That film was occasioned in part by an American hydrogen bomb test yielding radiation by poisoned the crew of a Japanese tuna boat, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5).

Why was Hiromi attracted to the song? Why not? It is, after all, an attractive melody. And even if the song is older than she is, it has been performed and has remained in circulation from the time it topped the charts, though obviously no longer so popular. Jazz musicians are always on the lookout for good material. “Ue o Muite Arukō”/”Sukiyadi” is good material. It’s almost inevitable the Hiromi should cover it, no?

Here’s a solo piano version:

She starts on the melody immediately, but in free time, and highly embellished. She establishes a tempo about 50 seconds in, playing in a swing style with stride touches. Notice the runs, the tremolos, the scalar figures, the two-handed punctuations. And, between you and me, I hear Chopin deep in the mix as filtered through decades of “professors” of jazz piano playing in clubs and at rent parties. About four minutes in she picks up the tempo, pounds the keyboard with her fists, and then pulls back for a bit. Now the right hand pirouettes in almost baroque figures. Then she slips a heavy left hand in, playing the melody in block chords and then, and then, and then. I can’t keep up. Have to laugh. At seven minutes or so, she starts walking it out, finishing delicately.

Chick Corea: Rock and that Latin Tinge

Here’s an entirely different version in a jazz-rock fusion style her Sonicbloom project:

There’s a lot going on here. Notice the opening riff, which will recur during the performance, the sections where they float over the time, the piano-bass-guitar unison at about 4:40 and the subsequent drop into low key piano delicacy, then walking bass, and so forth. If you listen closely you can hear a kinship between her piano work in this performance and that very different solo piano version. Unison figures at 8:44, and then we’re back to the opening riff and the melody. We’re not done yet, by a long shot.

And that brings us to Chick Corea, indirectly. But then every thing in this post comes around indirectly, as that is the way of the world. Born in 1941, Chick Corea is old enough to have heard “Sukiyaki” in the 1960s. The song was so pervasive at the time that he must have heard it; I have no idea whether or not it registered with him. In the late 1960s he helped establish jazz-rock fusion with Miles Davis, he played on the seminal Bitches Brew, and then formed his own group, Return to Forever. Without this music firmly in hand, Hiromi’s performance with Sonicbloom would have been impossible. That debt is stylistic.

More specific and personally, Uehera and Corea have played duets together. Here they are performing a theme from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Corea’s “Spain”:

They start by playing directly on the piano strings, an avant-garde technique started by who knows who knows when, having a grand time making noise and gradually moving to the keyboards without giving a clue about what’s coming up. The Rodrigo finally appears at about 2:30, where it is welcomed by applause. Now we know what’s going on. Both are playing freely. Time is loose and floating, figures move in and out between them. Time solidifies around simple repeated figures (c. 4:48) and then Corea’s “Spain” appears at about 5:31. They go at it. Corea throws in a riff from Rodrigo at 9:00 and then, at about 9:13, Uehara plays the melody of “Spain” in both hands while Corea leads the audience in rhythmic clapping. We have some rhythmic contrapuntal nonsense then both converge on the melody in unison (c. 9:41) and a big chord at 9:50. We’re going for the ending. They finish with some swirling figures over block chords, switching back and forth between support and embellishment. And we’re out.

Rodrigo’s Concierto embodies influences from both classical and flamenco guitar. The second movement was famously introduced into jazz by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in 1960’s Sketches of Spain. That “Spanish tinge,” as Jelly Roll Morton called it, had been miscegenating with jazz ever since it was called that, “jazz.” Moreover, Corea played with Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo early in his career and so was comfortable with Latin rhythms. Put it all together: jazz-rock-Latin played on an instrument developed to prominence in the concert halls of 19th century Europe.

Music does get around, doesn’t it?


Let’s take it around the dance floor another time. Hiromi Uehara performs George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which she dedicates to Oscar Peterson:

Few musicians elicit joyous laughter from me as often as she does.

From a Beethoven sonata:

I have no idea what old Ludwig would have thought of this. On the one hand there are passages in the second movement (of two) of his Piano Sonata 32, Op. 111 that sound like he was channeling Fats Waller or Earl Garner. And he surely understood the improvisatory impulse. But whatever Uehara’s pianism owes to the Western classical tradition, in which she was trained, she lives in a musical culture quite different from Beethoven’s. My guess is that, on the whole, he’d have found this puzzling, though perhaps with bits of interest here and there, but I hesitate to say where.