Thursday, April 11, 2013

Three Masterful Solo Pianists

I spent a while in the car Tuesday going from Connecticut to New Jersey for meetings -- non-rush hour the trip was about 75 minutes, coming home at rush hour it was about three hours. So I got to listen extensively to three CDs that I wanted to write about. As I listened, these CDs provoked me to think about what is jazz and what is modern classical piano. Was I listening to John Medeski or Eric Satie, Vladimir Neselovskyi or Claude Debussy; John Taylor or Franz Liszt? Is this music jazz? In fact, what is jazz in the context of these and many other similar CDs?

I am not going to try to decide what is or isn't jazz. It doesn't matter -- all that does frankly is that I like each one. Let others decide categories. What is important to me is conveying what these three piano recitals sounded like to me, to give enough of a feel so that readers might want to experience one or more themselves.

And all three are beauties.

So how do they feel? Well, at the end of 2012 I defined my favorites for the year into a set of categories, and these three CDs fall across two of them: Modern Lyrical Jazz (my interpretaton represented by the dancers) and Modern Impresssionistic Jazz (interpretation pictured as the seascape).  The distinguishing feature of the former is that modern lyrical jazz uses melodies as a point of departure more so than the modern impressionistic jazz, which does not necessarily begin with a distinctive melody but rather a mood.  In the first group I hear longer melody lines and tuneful harmonies;  the music flows, the lines are rounded and the constancy of movement is strong.  Modern impressionistic jazz to me is characterized by the creation of an atmosphere using sound and dynamics rather than melodies as the organizing principle, with rounded tones that envelope one in a comfortable place, with movements that are subtle and flowing, and with lots of open space. Mood and color trump melody and flow, and the dynamic range is minimized.

InsightJohn Taylor "Insight" (Sketch 2003) is not a new CD but it is new to me. I found it rummaging through old CD bins recently and being a big fan I picked it up immediately. Taylor is British, and while he is very well-known in the U.K. I am not sure how widely known he is in the U.S., although he should be. His solo CDs are marvelous, his recordings with Kenny Wheeler and Norma Winstone as Azimuth are fantastic, and he has a number of outstanding trio recordings on CamJazz and ECM. He was born in 1942 and is a self-taught pianist who established himself in the UK by the end of the 1960s.  He has been heard with other U.K. stars such as John Surman, Alan Skidmore, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and as noted above began working in groups with Kenny Wheeler and others in the 1970s. The work with Surman, Jan Gabarek and Wheeler, among others, are part of his repertoire with ECM. In 1977, with Wheeler and Winstone, Taylor formed Azimuth.  He is well known for his rich and lyrical play and is an accomplished composer as well. His trios include either Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, or Palle Danielsson and Martin France. "Insight" is Modern Lyrical Jazz as defined above. It is a solo recording full of rich melodies and improvisiations, wonderful harmonies and a range of dynamics and tempos. Taylor fills his songs with stunning melodies and strong left hand movements so that his tunes sound orchestral at times. Lush would be the word that comes to mind for the pieces, eight by Taylor himself and one each from Steve Swallow, Diana Taylor, and Kenny Wheeler. Each is impeccable and stylish, none stands out so all stand out. This is for those who love Jarrett, Pierranunzi, Steve Kuhn and others of that ilk.

Product DetailsVladimir Neselovskyi "Tunes for Today" (Sunnyside 2013) is a newcomer and his debut CD is a striking recording that covers some jazz classics, some classical repertoire, and some compositions by Neselovskyi himself. He definitely smears that line between jazz and classical as he covers both genres with passion and originality. His music fits into the Modern Lyrical Jazz category as well,  but begins to move towards freer impressionism as he deconstructs melodies into striking patterns and sublime colorings. He has worked in Gary Burton's band for some time and this is his first outing as a leader, and it is a dynamic piece of creativity and vision. It starts with his own "Spring Song" and bell-like play from the uppermost keys of the piano. What follows is a spritely piece, as much classical sounding as it is jazz. Neselovskyi's touch is immediately apparent -- quick runs with a light touch, followed by more dynamic legato lines and chords, all blended into a fascinating demonstration of both his compositional and playing skills. As the piece develops its drama increases, the dynamics grow, the speed intensifies, but the control is always there and connection made to the rest of the music before and after. When he moves into the next track, Chopin's "Mazurka op. 67 no.4" , it is striking how similar the music is to the opener, as I said blurring the line between jazz and clasical music. Neselovskyi clearly knows the repetoire and plays the piece straight at first, gradually moving into his impressions and improvisations seamlessly. Next up is the standards repetroire with "All the Things You Are", a chance to really see how creative the mind of the pianist can be. He picks out the tune over a rolling left hand to open the peice, but as it goes on the melody becomes more and more broken up and gradually it disappears into a lovely set of improvisations over a continuous left hand of quarter notes. The piece picks up intensity and volume as it moves onward, reaching some really intricate and large lines with more drama, until it resolves once again at the end. The pattern continues as he moves right ahead into the classical repetoire, this time an expansion of Bach's "Sinfonia No. 11 in G Minor BWV 797" which is the equal of those pieces that have come before and will come after. Two other pieces were written by Neselovskyi, one by Freddie Hubbard, and one by Tchaikovsky; and there are two more standards "My Romance" and "Body and Soul." "Body and Soul" begins with the melody in the left hand, with a bit of reformation to involve some minor chords, but by and large it is recognizable. Gradually the improvisations take over and the melody is almost entirely subsumed into the improvisations, popping up here and there in short bursts. It's a bravura use of the song to create something entirely knew and wonderfully creative. He does similar things to "My Romance" that are breathtaking to hear. The only mis-step to me is when he sings on Track 9, his own lyrics over Tchaikovsky's  "Andantino in modo de canzona." Even with that one hitch, this is one of the best CDs I have heard to date in 2013. By the way, it was produced by Fred Hersch, which says something about the quality of Neselovskyi in the eyes of one of the best pianists of our time.

Product DetailsJohn Medeski's "Past Time" (Okeh 2013) is notable for many reasons. First, it is the premiere recording on the restored Okeh label. Second, this is an amazing departure from his work with Medeski, Martin and Wood, even their accoustic works. And third because it is a very simple yet lovely meditation composed of 11 very quiet fully improvised miniatures that truly capture the essence of what Medeski himself states in the notes to the recording:

I only hope that this recording can be listened to late in the night, when social responsibilities are over, when the political questions of the day have been dealt with, when all the gossip has come to an end, when all the needs and wants have been put to momentary rest, when all plans have been made, when you are tired of words, and you are ready to yield to the sounds of these simple contemplations for the Gaveau [The piano manufacturer].

This is music for those who like quiet, slowly evolving tunes, and simplicity. This is Modern Impressionistic Jazz.  It has a unified air and a very limited, quiet dynamic range. Medeski uses very few large chords and many more single note melody lines, along with a very delicate touch. The first piece, "A Different Time" is played very slowly with a simple tune picked out one note at a time in the right hand while a very quiet  left plays a simple pair of notes underneath. Pensive, with lots of space, its delicacy is arresting as it fades to black. "I'm Falling in Love Again", one of only two covers (this one by Willie Nelson), comes next and is a bit more spritely with its simple melody picked out in the higher registers with simple chords played underneath; it is much like the sound of a music box, delicate and peaceful to the ear. The next piece, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" has a richer sound, more keys being played in the melody, more legato lines and more use of the pedal to extend the sounds. And yet it is still played slowly and at the same quiet dynamic level, particularly as it settles in. "Ran" introduces dissonance for the first (and only) time using chord clusters up front with spaces in between them. This is much more abstract than the rest of the pieces and somewhat jarring in context,  but it is only two minutes in length. It is followed immediately by a return to the music box qualities of earlier pieces with "Graveyard Fields", which has a lovely cascading melody at times and a simple single note melody at other times with a steady, very low rumbling bass in the left hand. And so it goes through four more meditations -- all very quiet and deliberate, all slowly rolled out and quietly played, and all quite lovely.  

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