Paul Bley: Closer

A masterpiece. Bley starts by creating these crystalline sound structures which hang uncertainly in the air and gradually fade. Some might say that he's using a lot of space and silence, but it seems more precise to say that he's playing with duration and decay. Later in the track, a number of unexpected and beautiful things happen: a singing baritone melody emerges in the left hand; a shimmeringly watery interlude follows; then the rhythm slowly grows more insistent and is punctuated by some Henry Cowell-esque extended piano techniques; next, the bottom drops out and there is a disorienting passage where his left and right hands search for one another in the upper register; finally, the questioning melody from the beginning returns. To me, this is alchemy: improvisational solo piano music distilled to an essence.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Bix Beiderbecke: In a Mist

Bix Beiderbecke was not a professional pianist, and this track is our only record of his keyboard work. Yet this is much more than dabbling by a gifted amateur. Beiderbecke completely dispenses with the oom-pah stride bass that dominated the solo jazz piano work of the era, and substitutes a holistic approach integrating left and right hands in a manner of his own invention. One might think this was a piece of classical music, if it weren't for a few telltale jazz devices. This early example of cool jazz gets positively chilly at certain points, with an emotional content as rarefied as the atmosphere 8,000 meters up Mt. Everest. There is no sentimentality here, rather a glittery crystalline quality, shiny and alluring even in its remoteness. This music is maddeningly difficult to "place" since there is hardly any "place" to place it in the annals of jazz history. In short, "In a Mist" is a one-of-a-kind work by a one-of-a-kind artist. Even so, I can't help thinking that, under slightly different circumstances, Bix Beiderbecke and his disciples might have built a whole different style of jazz playing on this foundation.

May 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Toshiko

There's no doubt that Jessica Williams, like other women in jazz, has been inspired by those who came before her, such as Mary Lou Williams and Toshiko Akiyoshi. In fact, Jessica maintains a growing list of "Women in Jazz" on her website. Williams was the house pianist at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco when she met Mary Lou, who told her: "Don't ever let anyone stop you." Akiyoshi has studied Japanese history, culture, and traditional music, all of which permeate many of her compositions, including "Kogun," “Tales of a Courtesan," "Long Yellow Road," and "Kourakan Suite." Williams distinctive original, "Toshiko," serves as a tribute to Akiyoshi by acknowledging its namesake's interest in Japanese folk music.

"Toshiko" has the pensive air and delicacy of a Japanese folk song played on a koto. Williams renders the melody with sparkling clarity, enriched by tenderly struck left hand chords. The pianist does little else but play the theme in a deeply affecting manner, and in her final chorus becomes powerfully emotional before tempering her attack back to its original musing and yearning nature. This is one of Williams' sparsest, and most concise and unassuming recorded performances.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jessica Williams: Warm Valley

The sensuous, reverent "Warm Valley" was originally introduced by Duke Ellington as a feature for Johnny Hodges' alto, and has rarely been covered by pianists over the years. Playing solo, Williams interprets it memorably here. (See review on of Earl Hines' performance, one of the other notable exceptions.) This is Jessica Williams the reflective balladeer, the other side of the often more uninhibited, effusive player. Those two sides complete an unbeatable master of jazz piano.

Williams' short intro is both glowing and majestic, and the same can be said for her treatment of the theme, highlighted by her clarion touch, gradational ornamentations, and a hypnotically serene and soothing pace. Some of her twittering arpeggios bear the stamp of both Ellington and Monk's pianistics, and a bluesy ambiance quite effectively and subtly pervades one of her choruses. However, it is the striking immediacy of her open-hearted articulation that is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this glorious interpretation, so fully captured by recording engineers David Baker and Ed Reed.

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Dreams

This tune was composed by Annette Peacock, whose compositions have had a big influence on me. Her tunes are landscapes for improvisation, somehow very meticulous, yet very free—a very difficult balance to find as a composer, and perhaps even more difficult for someone interpreting and improvising on the written material. Paul is one of the most inventive pianists on the planet, and was a mentor to me when I was coming up. Ever the contrarian, he always looks at the other side of the coin. At the time of Alone, Again (1974), he was trying to be “the slowest pianist on the planet,” and on this ballad, he gives us a taste of this concept: slow, lyrical, patient playing that allows the overtones to ring out, creating a piece of exquisite beauty filled with tension and release.

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett: Encore (Tokyo)

For much of the 1970s, Keith Jarrett was releasing so much music that few fans or critics could keep up with him. He was recording with his American quartet and his European quartet, doing solo piano projects, composing quasi-classical works, and pursuing other miscellaneous projects. If you saw him in concert at that time, you might hear Jarrett playing soprano sax or percussion, as well as piano. Just a few weeks before this concert in Tokyo, he recorded an album of organ music, followed a few days later by the quartet session featured on the Impulse release Byablue.

Keith Jarrett

In the midst of this flurry of activity, Jarrett tossed off the Sun Bear Concerts as though they were just a passing whim, and the high price tag attached when this music was released (originally in a box set of 10 LPs) limited sales to a select few. But this project (now available on six CDs)—comprising the music performed at five solo piano concerts in Japan—must be considered one of the high points of Jarrett's career. This encore from his Tokyo concert finds the pianist at top form, constructing a taut, lyrical improvisation in E minor over a filigree of mostly sixteenth notes in the left hand. At first, one expects Jarrett to move into a repeating pattern or vamp, as he often does on these solo outings, yet instead he pushes the harmonies in surprising ways. The effect is much like hearing a classical composer, working within a late Romantic or early Impressionist tonal palette, in the midst of creating a new piece. Only a few years earlier, music of this sort would hardly have been considered jazz, yet Jarrett, through his visionary conception of improvisation, was pushing the art form on to new terrain.

April 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Thank You

Outlasting Satch and Duke and Diz, even Oscar Peterson - America's grand ambassadors of jazz - peripatetic pianist Dave Brubeck still takes to the road occasionally as he nears age 90 (and may he reach his centenary like composer Elliott Carter). In the meantime Dave's recent solo-piano release Indian Summer includes an autumnal version of his seminal and often-revisited tune "Dziekuje," first recorded for the Quartet's Jazz Impressions of Eurasia album a half century ago but known ever since then by the translation of that Polish word . . . "Thank You."

The composition reflected Brubeck's good manners; as many albums showed, he regularly sought to acknowledge each nation and to thank the people everywhere he traveled--in this instance by paying homage to Chopin, the pianist-composer who had figured in Dave's own earliest years at the keyboard. This melody yearns, both mournful and impassioned, Slavic and stately and sad, full of delicate filigree and phenomenal finger-strength as Brubeck remembers ghostly waltzes and nocturnes and ballades, and Chopin's brief dying fall in the south of France. But there's some wishful bravado here too, hints of an octogenarian--maybe--wrestling Death to a draw. ("Oh Death," sang Dock Boggs 80 years ago and Ralph Stanley more recently, "won't you spare me over till another year?")

But I wax too fanciful, reading too much into what is simply, or complexly, a fine tune and performance that should be seen instead as an opportunity for us fans to recognize Jazz's debt to a great pianist-composer of the present. . . .Thank you, Mr. Brubeck.

April 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Tobin Mueller: Chaos of the Subconscious

Tobin Mueller's 13 Masks could make a good case study for the subconscious. What is going on in his head? Other reviewers have called this music a mix of "… jazz, 20th Century classical and post-New Age solo piano." The artist himself has coined the phrase, "progressive ragtime." I think the operative word in the last two sentences is "mix." Tune after tune is expertly played, but structure and style change so often that you can't pick out either. Don't get me wrong. This is not free jazz. There is direction. We just don't know where Mueller came from or where he is going. It is organized chaos. What is chaos if all that surrounds it is chaos? Does it become the norm and thus no longer chaotic?

These and other questions are pondered while listening to the entirety of 13 Masks. "Chaos of the Subconscious" is one of 13 synapse-challenging pieces presented by the pianist. One more thing about chaos: it's dramatic. If that is one of the thousand ideas Mueller is trying express, maybe subconsciously, he succeeds. I feel and think when I listen to his notes, chords and even unexpected empty places. This isn't the best music to read a book by. You have to really focus and pay attention. Some music demands that. You will either find something in it or not. I found it to be interesting enough to listen to repeatedly to figure out where this guy is coming from. I still don't know. But a little exercise for the brain is good for us.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Tobin Mueller: The Gumshoe Wears a Rag

Tobin Mueller plays 13 solo piano pieces on 13 Masks. I have been listening to the album for several weeks, and have made several false starts at reviewing it during that time. Usually something is triggered in my mind when listening to a piece for the first time. Once that trigger kicks in, the words flow based on experience. That isn't happening with "The Gumshoe Wears a Rag." Intrinsically I know this is good music. Mueller is a technically gifted player. But this pianist is doing things I don't understand. He changes mood, intent or style every few measures. The tune is playful, serious, introspective, not so much so, jazz and not jazz. It's like what they say about the weather in New England. "Wait an hour and it will change." But in this case it is, "Wait a minute…" Mueller's music is a whole boatload of briefly expressed ideas. And he does this 13 times! But instead of becoming a frustrated listener, we want to know what he is doing and why. Thinking is good. Admittedly, we must work a bit to appreciate 13 Masks. Perhaps sequentially peeling each mask off will let us see the music's whole face. I'm game if you are.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Jan Johansson: St. Louis Blues

Countless innovative recordings of this W.C. Handy staple exist, but this solo "test version" from a soundcheck is particularly thrilling for its freedom and motion. The exuberant spirit of blues meant something far different in the 1960s than when this song was originally composed by Handy in jazz's early days and first published in 1914. With his rendition, Jan Johansson, the Swedish giant of jazz, goes out on a limb and finds himself perfectly at home in a frontier of tone clusters, rhythmic displacements and jagged phrasing.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Jan Johansson: Willow Weep for Me

Jan Johansson's love of Art Tatum led him to try out numerous imitative ideas on this popular song, which Tatum himself used as a vehicle for runs, tricks, and lightning-quick stride. No one does it better than Tatum, but here Johansson's flourishes are calm, yet delicate and spry. With 8 Bitar Johansson (8 Pieces of Johansson), the young pianist solidified his place at the top of the Swedish jazz elite, and won his third Golden Disc Award from jazz magazine Orkester Journalen in 1961.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Enrico Pieranunzi: K531 / Impro K531

Composers from the Baroque period have often inspired jazz musicians. Some have just used harmonic patterns from those works, others melodic themes, but all have recognized composers whose music swung before the term even existed. Bach has of course been the main provider of this Baroque material. Enrico Pieranunzi, besides being a renowned jazz pianist, has been a classical piano teacher for most of his life, yet was never keen on mixing genres. Here, for the first time in his career, he tackles some of the sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti, an Italian composer who lived at the same time as Bach but has seldom inspired jazz adaptations. (Searchers might be interested in a fragment of the K9 sonata played by Teddy Wilson in the studio during a pause on 01/21/42, which is the only previous occurrence I know of Scarlatti in jazz). Among Scarlatti's 500+ sonatas, Pieranunzi chose 14, and either just plays them according to the score or adds an improv on the written material.

"K531/Impro K531" is the only track in common with an earlier record by Vladimir Horowitz, who in the 1940s and '50s restored Scarlatti to fame after being mostly relegated to piano exercises. On this same K531 sonata, it's interesting to compare Pieranunzi's choices to those of a pianist who put his imprint on these works and who, though he was strictly a classical interpreter, was often spotted as a listener in jazz clubs, particularly when Art Tatum was performing. Horowitz's version is crystal clear, rather slow, and lets the two hands ride independently, making the piece's polyphonic construction obvious. He also uses lots of piano and forte nuances, with a feel for time that sounds a bit like slow swinging.

Pieranunzi is comparatively fast, emphasizing the contrast between treble and lows rather than between right and left hands. He also tends to play rubato, dragging this Baroque composition towards the spirit of the Romantic period. Of course, these are artistic choices and each can be respected as such. During his improv, Pieranunzi confirms his "romantic" options, displaying a beautiful piano touch and virtuoso streaks that make a frequent use of the pedal, among some more formal developments. While one cannot but be impressed, one may wonder why Scarlatti should have served as a pretext for something so far removed from his universe. Lovers of beautiful piano will be satisfied by this effort. Those who believe the ground between Baroque music and jazz hasn't yet been fully explored may be disappointed by an attempt that globally misses the point.

February 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Abdullah Ibrahim: In a Sentimental Mood

Ibrahim enjoyed the rare distinction, back in the early 1960s, of having his career take flight under the sponsorship of Duke Ellington. Here he returns the favor by interpreting one of Ellington's best known songs. But this track is a disappointment. The piano sound is murky, and though the recording engineer bears some responsibility, Ibrahim's pedaling and piano touch also contribute to the problem. Throughout this CD, and especially on this track, Ibrahim relies on a fractured rubato. Again and again, he hits a chord at the start of the bar, adds a very concise right hand phrase—the phrases here rarely cross the barline, as though it were some insurmountable obstacle—then the sounds die out while Ibrahim pauses to consider his follow-up move. Eventually the next bar starts, with another chord and another phrase stumbles out of the starting gate, only to fall to the ground before reaching the finish line. To add to the austere sensibility, Ibrahim has excised most of the recognizable elements from Ellington's original composition. There is neither much sentiment nor mood in this version of "Sentimental Mood." Some of the harmonic textures are interesting, but there is not enough substance here for them to cohere into anything substantial.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Ran Blake: Lost Highway

Many years ago, I attended a concert by pianist George Winston. While the ornate hall was way too full of tweed outerwear and heavy-handed perfume, I must admit that I did enjoy Winston's playing. It gets tagged as New Age, which usually has the effect of instant dismissal, at least by the person doing the tagging. Yet Winston himself has called what he does "rural folk piano," which gets closer to the truth. There came a moment in his show that at first seemed out of place, with Winston playing a stride piano number, followed by a switch to the guitar for a Hawaiian slack-key tune. What amazed me was any connection at all between Winston's own music and the more rootsy music he also presented. Ah, but it was definitely there.

I feel exactly the same way when approaching Ran Blake's take on "Lost Highway." What would Mr. Blake, who so loves to deconstruct things, do with a fairly simple tune, one made famous by Hank Williams? Easy! Take the simple harmonic and melodic elements of the song and stretch them out to infinity. It's almost like the song has been drifting through space since the Big Bang, and Blake caught the material just when it passed through his life space. Yes, I suppose that explanation is more than a little New Agey. But pure beauty is sometimes difficult to describe.

January 30, 2009 · 0 comments


Martial Solal: Corcovado

When Martial Solal played the Vanguard alone in 2007, he was the second pianist ever, after Fred Hersch, to be granted such a privilege. It's definitely an honor, especially for a European musician. But after more than a half century of playing and recording all over the world with an international reputation, it can't be considered undue. The press clips say that the Vanguard was packed every night, and the reviews were excellent. The record is, anyway, and on this track Solal plays a Brazilian standard he'd never recorded before, as far as I know. To him, all music is just music, so he won't really care if it's Brazilian or Norwegian; it's basically food for his brain and fingers.

He starts, as often, by getting at the theme from a side angle, with one hand, then two in unison. Next he exposes the theme with more and more rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alterations until hitting a brief stride passage followed by virtuoso scales. Here you may fear the worst, but the theme comes back and undergoes more metamorphoses, including a short coverage in the very low register that is surprisingly musical. And just when you are beginning to get used to Solal's way of dealing with a standard, suddenly it's over. Applause, laughs, speechless signs of surprise (one supposes) … That's about the diversity of reaction that Solal expects from a listening audience, and one wishes that all the musicians who played the Vanguard before him had found such a rapt and respectful reception.

January 19, 2009 · 0 comments


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