Maria Baptist is likely a musician that most folks in the U.S. have not heard of. I came across her music this summer in Berlin, and purchased the appropos "Spring in Berlin" (MBM 2010) then. A trio recording with Andreus Henze on bass and Michael Kersting on drums, I found it to be a very rewarding listen, with all the compositions by Baptist with the exception of one by Henze wonderfully lyrical and well-developed for a lot of group interaction. The CD features music across a wide range of tempos, but always features lyrical and moving piano passages with great percussion and bass support.
Having purchased one CD by Baptist, when I returned home I did some more reserach into her background and discography, and found that Baptist is a well-known and distinguished pianist and composer who has a very low visibility in the U.S. Maria Baptist was born in 1971 in East Berlin. Born to a family of musicians, she gravitated to music early and by age 11 was already starting to compose music for herself. She discoverd jazz through the recordings of Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett and leter began studying piano at the university in Berlin and won piano competitions on improvisation while there. Upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, she took the opportunity to move to New York which greatly expanded her musical world. She has studied composition with Maria Schneider, who has remarked: "Her music is a gift, infused with all the creativity, power, emotion, generosity and warmth that she exudes in life." She returned to Berlin at age 25 and has since gone on to write for piano solos, trios, and for orchestra; has won competitions in Leipzig, in Copenhagen with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra in Copenhagen and the NDR Composers Competition. She began studies in classical music, and at age 26 was teaching jazz at the University of Music in Berlin, and is still a guest professor at the University of Music "Hanns Eisler", where she teaches composition, arranging, improvisation and jazz theory. She has eight CDs to her credit in all settings, including with the German State Orchestra, solo and with the aforementioned trio.
Baptist's latest CD is "Gate 29" (MBM Recordings 2012), another trio outing with the same band members. These are eleven tightly played original compositions of 7 minutes or less. Despite being only a trio, the orchestration of the three members and compositional strength of Baptist particularly in writing for two hands on the piano provide the listener with a very full, lush sound. The pieces are highly dramatic and expressive, with lots of very dense play and emotion that can be overwhelming when such pieces are played back to back to back. The pieces each have a great deal of movement to them, a percussive force created by the pianist as well as by the strong backing from the drum set, and at times there are echoes of the qualities that one finds in Hiromi's musical sets, albeit with a greataer range of dynamics. The music is chock full of notes, the opposite of an ECM recording that emphasizes space and delicacy; here the music emphasizes spirit, emotions, drama, and energy. With so much heartiness and drive, the listener has to consider each piece carefully or else risk exhaustion by the end of the CD.
The pieces are each individually beguiling. "Travel in Possibilites" opens the set with a lush, almost semi-classical sound, a very strongly written and performed opening driven by a strong piano bass line and high hat crashes. It moves propulsively forward with a sense of urgency provided by the group dynamic and long and quick piano lines. The high-energy play continues with a brisk piece "Gate 29" that features a pulsing piano bass line, more loong and rapid piano lines and a featured drum solo. To my ear the first two pieces feel exactly like the trip to the airport and boarding process; by the third piece "Cloud 9" we are finally settled into our seats and able to relax, and the piece mellows out considerably with a gentle piano solo. The pace slows for a while and the expression of beauty in captured nicely even as the tempo does increase before settling back.
There are indeed less driven pieces, notably "The Blue Shore" and especially "Open Landscape" with reflective melodies, more coloration than tempo driven percussion, and some nice lead parts for the bass. "Open Landscape" is particularly sweet and lyrical.
Baptist is a talented composer and skilled pianist, and both CDs with the trio are full of wonderful pieces. Perhaps a bit more variety is needed, particularly with "Gate 29", so that the listener in not overwhelmed by the music, but all in all I would not hesitate to recommend this to those interested in creative modern jazz. My next step will be to listen to her orchestral music.