Monday, April 22, 2013

Extreme Piano Listening: 8 CDs of Note

Took another ride to New Jersey recently. Packed a few new CDs in the car to listen to and off I went. As I listened to the music I had brought, which featured piano-based sets, I got to thinking about how different they were from one another. On the one hand I had smoothly traditional standards jazz (and I do not mean smooth jazz), on the other some avant-garde spiky modernist renderings. And in the middle I had those lyrical and impressionistic CDs that don't fall heavily to either side.

Which brought me to thinking about the continuum of piano-based jazz, or at least my continuum from the time of bop onward (In other words no ragtime, no pre-WWII), which really is a further definition of my categorizations from my "Best of 2012" post, but this time using players and not descriptive categories. I decided that I can define my poles pretty easily:

  • At one end, and in this case for whatever reason I think to the left on my scale, are the classic stylists of mainstream jazz, defined for me by Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, and Andre Previn. Strong with the melody, simple but classic with  the improvisations, harmonic, and elegant players. Adjectives: Smooth, elegant, stylish, classic, lyrical, traditional, easy. Persona: Sean Connery as James Bond.  

  • At the other end, to the right, the furthest I go would be defined for me pretty much with a single player, Matthew Shipp, who takes the music as far in that direction consistently as anyone in my collection, though at times others do as well but not as consistently -- Uri Caine, Marilyn Crispell, Myra Melford. Adjectives: Spiky, discordant, intense, demanding, polyphonic, modern, abstract. Persona: Lisbeth Salander in the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.

The largest group of pianists clearly falls in between and can be cut up and defined in so many ways. I chose modern mainstream, modern lyrical, and modern impressionistic for categorizing my 2012 recordings.

So what was I listening to that provoked these thoughts and images?  Here they are

  • Product DetailsAaron Diehl, The Bespoke Man's Narrative (Mack Avenue 2013) is a wonderful set of straight-ahead music produced among a quartet of outstanding players -- Diehl on piano, David Wong on bass, Rodney Green on drums and Warren Wolf on the vibes. Very much to the smooth end of my hierarchy (and again that does NOT mean smooth jazz), well-structured and played peaens to some great music like "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Single Petal of a Rose" as well as several pieces penned by Diehl all emphasize how formidable each player is and how beautiful they sound when playing together, as a sort of new MJQ. And a special tip of the hat to David Wong, whose playing I find formidable as always (see earlier posts). Bespoke for sure, and who is more bespoke than Sean Connery as James Bond? 
  • Product DetailsNoah Haidu, Momentum (Positone 2013) is another pianist from the smooth side of the continuum who follows 2011's "Slipstream" (Positone 2011) with another set of mainstream jazz, a trio this time with Ariel de la Portilla on bass and McClenty Hunter on drums. Haidu's set consists of four originals and five covers, with the covers being of some lesser known but wonderful songs like "I Thought About You" from Jimmy Van Heusen, "Serenity" by Joe Henderson, and Keith Jarrett's "Rainbow". More familiar and lovely are "The End of a Love Affair" and "A Child is Born." Haidu's trio play is straight down the middle, with the melodies clearly stated and the improvisations tightly wound and shiny. Very lush and beautiful music.
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  • Steve Kuhn, The Vanguard Date (Sunnyside 2013) is a re-release of a set at the Village Vanguard recorded in 1986 and released on the Owl label. Kuhn leans well to the smooth end of the continuum but to me has a bit more flair with his interpretations of melodies and is freer and more creative with his improvised sections. He shares his set with his partners Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums, two outstanding veterans with a similar ear for melody, harmony and improvisation. Half the pieces are originals, with one of them from Carter. This CD also covers "I Thought About You" at double the length of the Haidu version, which provides the time for a great deal of exploration by each member of the trio, and yet the two versions are remarkably similar with the emphasis on lush chords and long and lyrical lines. Kuhn is a master of dynamics, melodies and emotions and this is a beautifully captured romantic set.
  • Product DetailsAlessandro Lanzoni Trio, Dark Flavor (CamJazz 2013) moves the dial along the continuum towards a more modern, lyrical approach to sound and the interpretation of individual pieces. Melodies are less specific although lyricism and long lush harmonies rule the day, so the overall work is a pleasurable listen. This is a part of CamJazz' young talents series and a really sharp debut for Lanzoni, who joins with Matteo Bortone on bass and Enrico Morello on drums. His play features elements of classical music, the blues, and off course jazz as he lays down six originals and five covers featuring three pieces by T. Monk ---"Bright Mississippi", "Crepuscule for Nellie" and "Introspection." He smooths out Monk a fair amount but still retains the uneveness in the meter and approach that makes the songs Monk pieces. His own melodies are lyrical with long legato passages and plenty of interplay with a particularly strong tempo maintained by the bass and drum parts. When the CD starts with "Anatollo" it is clear immediately that this is a trio with a lot of promise by a new Italian pianist in the mode of Enrico Pieranunzi and Dado Moroni. Modern lyricism at its best in a great debut set.
  • Product DetailsEldar Djangirov Trio, Breakthrough (Motema 2013) moves a bit more to the middle of the scale, featuring a set with a wide variety of sources and moods played by the former piano prodigy Eldar, here with Armando Gola on basee, Ludwig Afonso on drums, and featuring Chris Potter on tenor sax on one piece and Joe Locke on vibes on another. Eldar has always been associated with showy play, fast runs and lots of dynamic changes, but here he has tempered his excesses into a set of eleven fascinating pieces. He still displays his speed, his emotions, and creativity but seems more controlled and aware of the interplay with his partners. What moves the meter more to the middle for me -- moving between modern lyrical and modern impressionistic jazz -- is his interpretation of the original melodies, his imaginative improvisations and his highly impressionistic originals that are based less on feeling the tunes and on emotion. "Point of View Redux" as opener immediately captures these themes in an original piece that is at times fiery, at other times romantic, and always lyrically driven. His interpretations of "Somebody Loves Me" and "What'll I Do", by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin respectively are full of lovely melody lines and lush chords and then lyrical improvisations on the tune that display creativity and romanticism. These are 11 pieces that are still heavily dependent upon conventional melodies and harmonies, but are expansive in the use of them to create some wonderfully new pieces. 
  • Product DetailsLisa Hilton, Getaway (Ruby Slippers Productions 2013) is a new outing of 13 original pieces by Hilton with Larry Grenadier on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. It traces Hilton's moods and feelings from being on the road seeing new places and meeting new people. From the jangling and hectic "Getaway" to open the set to the fantastically beautiful pairing of " Stepping into Paradise" and "Evening Song", with a range of emotions, sounds, and tempi in between, this is the essence of modern impressionistic jazz for me. Each song and its title conveys different places, people and times of day and Hilton fully realizes her concept of taking the listener with her across the full range of her feelings. Hilton was once upon a time time thought of as a smooth jazzer but with her last CD "American Impressions" (Ruby Slippers Productions 2012) and this one she has blossomed into a modern jazz pianist to be reckoned with. I find this a knockout experience and one for those who love the mainstream or modern impressionistic jazz trio play.
  • Product DetailsCraig Taborn, "Chants" (ECM 2013) follows on the heels of Taborn's solo outing in 2011 on ECM "Avenging Angel" and is another very original set of nine pieces, this time in a trio with Gerald Cleaver on bass and Thomas Morgan on drums. This is clearly a partnership and not solely a piano-led trio outing, with all three instruments clearly driving the car at various times, or contributing interesting parts to make up a wonderfully rich and interesting listen. I confess that I did not have this with me on the way to New Jersey, but did have it in advance of tomorrow's release, and I did want to include it here as it moves the meter a bit more to the free and open, avant garde/spiky side of the continuum. But it doesn't fully reach that side -- it is not at all spiky and instead features a concentration on melodies and counterpoint, on a palette of varying sounds and atmospheric interest, and on the use of space to let the songs breath. Cool stuff that I categorize as modern free jazz, a category that I would include players like Jason Morn and Vijay Iyer in as well. Definitely not for those in the mainstream but in the wheelhouse of those liking new modernistic piano trios.
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  • Han Bennick with Uri Caine, Sonic Boom (816 Music 2013)  tips my needle fully to the modern, avante garde side with its wildly free range music by Bennick on drums and Caine on piano. Thus the picture of Lisbeth Salander, a great representation of the music herein. And yet not all of it can be characterized in that manner, as a song like "Furious Urious", an original sounds like something that would come out of any forward thinking modern mainstream jazz group. It has a strong melody, a flowing sound, and typical bass and drum rhythms propelling it. On the other hand, the CD starts with the drum set, then a series of short staccato piano notes forming a sort of melody that ranges around the entire keyboard, gradually moving into a more structured set of notes in the right hand with a still staccato undertone from the left hand and the drums. Not a traditional that quickly breaks down again into a free range set of chords, runs, and drum beats.  A really dynamic, adventerous, and highly pleasing modernistic approach to music. The second piece "Grind of Blue" opens as a more or less traditional sounding piece, with a quiet piano melody and supporting drums and switches gradually into a free form piece. "Round Midnight" is the sole piece here not written/free improvised by the duo and is a fascinating take. the melody is there in pieces but the construct is very different with lots of short runs and furious drumming, and then short pieces of softer sounds and lyricism. Back and forth and very captivating. Overall the CD is a fascinating combination of inside and outside sections, creative intellects at work, and dynamic play.
Eight CDs and I like them all, from the smoothest and most inside to the jagged and intriguing avant garde. See which fit your tastes, and even try to expand them. It won't hurt too much!

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