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Hiromi Shimizu, Jazz on Top, Osaka. September 25th, 2004.

John Robert Brown

"I met Blossom Dearie two months ago. I sang The Nearness of You in Danny's, a Thai restaurant on 42nd Street in New York. It was a Blossom Dearie tribute night. I didn't know, but Blossom was in the room, out of view behind a pillar. She heard me, clapped her hands, and said: 'I like you.' I had my picture taken with her. She's very nice; we quickly became friends."

On a sweltering September afternoon I'm sitting in the cool calm of the basement club Jazz on Top, run in Osaka by the young singer and club owner Hiromi Shimizu.

Hiromi has just finished taking her weekly English instruction, given by an American lecturer from Osaka University, Janet Bunting. Hiromi's choice to have English language lessons from an American makes sense; most of the songs she sings are written in American English.

Today, Hiromi has decided to invite Blossom Dearie to attend her New York Blue Note appearance in October. Teacher Bunting has set appropriate homework for Hiromi this week: compose a letter to Blossom.

My arrival at Jazz on Top was pure serendipity. At Brecon in 2003 I had heard a Japanese pianist, Hiromi, in a crowd-pulling set marred by poor amplification. In my JR piece I promised to catch pianist Hiromi when I could hear her under better conditions. Walking through Osaka this autumn the name 'Hiromi' leapt out at me from posters. Naturally, I investigated. But Shimizu is an entirely different Hiromi, a singer, not a pianist, yet of equal interest. Be warned about confusing the two.

In European terms, Hiromi Shimizu is the equivalent of Ronnie Scott or Peter Ind, in that she is simultaneously a prominent player and club owner. At the age of 33, the singer already has three clubs in the Umeda area, Osaka's answer to 52nd Street.

Here in Osaka, a city of nine million, Shimizu also owns a recording studio and a record label. She has just released her debut CD 'Smile', which includes As Time Goes By, Bewitched, Autumn Leaves, Smile and We'll Meet Again. She also has a one-year-old baby. If she lived in Britain, she'd be featured on Woman's Hour, for sure!

"I began running a club near here, a very small place, with just seats for thirty people and a bar counter," explains Shimizu. "I ran that for a year and a half. Then I was thinking of a big image for jazz. So I took a great gamble and came here, near to the Osaka Blue Note, and clubs such as Mr Kelly's and Rug Time. So we had to try other jazz events. The nearby clubs promote not only jazz, but fusion, rock and pop. But I love jazz, so the name is Jazz on Top."

Hiromi provides a convoluted justification for the name, involving a love of Paul Chambers' album Bass on Top and the fact that her first club was at the top of a city building. "In 2002 I came here. My sister runs the original club in Fukushima. And there's another club here, across the street. My husband runs a recording studio as well."

A jazz family, then. But doesn't a female musician experience problems running a jazz club in the centre of one of the world's most expensive cities?

She smiles. "A few weeks ago a guy came in here, drinking. It was: 'Everyone have a drink on me. My wife left me. Listen to my sad story.' At four in the morning, when it was time for him to go, we discovered that he didn't have any money. He couldn't pay. I felt very confused," said Hiromi. "I had to call the police for the first time. Next morning, at eleven, his friend brought the money, sixty thousand yen (about three hundred pounds). He had eaten lots of meals and bought drinks for everyone!"

And what of the feared Yakuza, the notorious Japanese gangsters who cut off their own little finger as a sign of membership? They are so dreaded that speaking the name Yakuza is avoided. Instead, silent reference is made by drawing the back of one's fingernails down one jawbone, symbolizing the facial scar associated with these tough guys. "The Yakuza come here as customers," she says. They don't cause us any problems. They are my fans!"

Shimizu is clearly in love with American standard songs. She refers to a golden age of songwriting, which she defines as being between 1930 and the early 1940s, and raves about Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin. She has a thing about what she calls 'healing' songs.

"They give us courage, energy, power," she says. "These songs are more relaxed, cheerful. The way the word 'healing' is used in Japan is not in the sense of healing when you cut yourself. It's more like, say, aroma therapy. Not because we're broken and we're healing, it's because we are trying to relax. Feeling or healing, it's between the two. In Japanese, 'h' and 'f' are the same character, they sound the same. Think of the town 'Fukuoka'. Keep the soul and the heart happy and relaxed."

I'm not sure I understand this, but the result is great. Her singing communicates. She sings in tune, sounds those end-of-word consonants meticulously, has a pleasantly sincere stage manner, and swings.

Does she play an instrument as well?

"Yeah, a little. I accompany myself on Route 66, an interesting but simple piece. I play well enough to learn new tunes, to choose the keys to suit my voice."

During an evening at the club the atmosphere is relaxed, amplification good, sight lines clear, service quiet and attentive, the honey toast delicious. Hiromi sings between short sets by other musicians, with guests sitting in.

The rhythm sections deserve special mention. Pianists Takashi Nishimoto and Sachito Ikuta are both excellent. Nishimoto has a mature hard bop approach, a novel fondness for the deep lower middle range of the piano, and a fascinating way with hemiola (two-against-three). He would be a busy pianist in any city in the world. Ichiko (her name Sachiko means 'happy girl') grooves well without a rhythm section, provides the singer with impeccable support, and when soloing possesses the ability to hold one's attention totally.

British festival promoters looking for fresh mainstream attractions would do well to take a hint from the New York Blue Note, or from Blossom Dearie. Hire Hiromi. And ask her to bring a pianist as well.

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