Early Piano Music (1951-1961)
Matchless MRCD 51

Member of the so-called New York School along with John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, French/American composer Christian Wolff (b. 1934) also has a considerable history with improvisation.

Mostly self-taught, like many of the greatest jazzmen, he has been a professor of classics and music at Dartmouth College since 1970. Not only do many of his pieces allow for cues and other material to spark the performers’ interpretations, but as a pianist Wolff has improvised with, among others, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, turntablist Christian Marclay and, most notably, veteran British trio AMM.

That’s why this two-CD set of the composer’s early piano music is doubly interesting and valuable. The first disc features interpretations of Wolff’s oeuvre by AMM member pianist John Tilbury, who is also an acknowledged master of performing Feldman’s work. The second disc adds the composer himself on piano for four numbers as well as extending the mix with the percussion of another AMMer, Eddie Prévost, for the lengthy “Trio II”.

Wolff’s work has always been characterized with a very limited number of pitches and over the years his notation has become simpler. Like many modern composers he has frequently had to face the charge that his sounds are cold and uninviting, something experimental pianists on the jazz/improv side of the fence have had to put up with as well. Although the 17 creations here are certainly formal enough, this coldness only exists if the listener is expecting to hear something other than what Wolff authored. If sweeping 19th century Romanticism is your definition of so-called classical piano music, then Wolff’s pieces will fittingly disappoint you.

Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor initially experienced — and in Taylor’s case still experience — this sort of wrong-headed or tin-eared criticism. If the listener expects the pure swing, manifest note patterns and pop song references of say Bud Powell, Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, what Monk or Taylor plays is going to sound “wrong”. That it’s actually “right” because it’s following a whole different set of standards is precisely how Wolff’s work is “right” and, in fact, anything but cold. What’s cold to someone who has lived all his life in South Africa, for instance, isn’t perceived the same way by someone who lives in Northern Canada.

Perhaps it’s due to Tilbury’s touch, which has always been able to reach the proverbial spaces between the keys, but on the first CD there doesn’t seem too much difference between the composer’s earlier prepared and non-prepared pieces. At least, that is, until the three-part “For piano with preparations - 1957” makes its appearance. Even here though, the 17 preparations and the instructions that the strings are to be touched, plucked and muted at different times don’t produce an unappetizing sound picture. Instead you have a straightforward exploration of varied harmonics, performed with the same nonchalant élan that contemporary Euro improvisers bring to their instant compositions.

Although the dual piano work that takes up most of CD2 includes so-called reciprocal improvisation as well as free sections, cues, open forms and stratagems for instant creations there’s really no link to later raucous game pieces like John Zorn’s. Don’t expect dual piano work along the lines of Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, Russ Freeman and André either.

Here, neither the composer nor the interpreter deems it necessary to play the accompanist role, nor would the silences, resonating cadenzas, occasional string plucks or odd whack on the instrument’s side remind anyone of the boogie-woogie team or sequential swing stylists. If, in the context of 2003, Wolff’s creations appear to resemble dual piano explorations of Alexander Von Schillipenbach, Irène Schweizer, Keith Tippett or Marilyn Crispell, it’s because those keyboardists — and many others — have internalized the New York School’s formal experimentation along with Taylor’s pianistic audacity.

Prévost’s subtle percussion asides fit perfectly into this aural garden of rapport. Singular tones from triangle, drum head and other percussion appear fleetingly at various times — and someone does whistle every so often — but never does the drummer or the drums demand domineering attention. Nor do these sounds disrupt the proceedings. Meanwhile the four hands of the pianists’ appear to fuse into two. You could compare the result to certain contemporary single piano-drum kit displays, so thoroughly do Wolff and Tilbury merge.

Wolff’s relationship with AMM is such because its three members have confidence that when he works with them their aesthetic is respected. You can say the same about this disc. Without Keith Rowe’s guitar and preparations, it still isn’t an AMM plus guest session. Instead both men subsume themselves so thoroughly into Wolff’s work that the set should first be recommended to composition types who want a superior Wolff souvenir, then to improv followers, to see how versatile and selfless Tilbury and Prévost can be.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. For prepared piano -1951 i 2. For prepared piano -1951 ii 3.For prepared piano -1951 iii 4. For prepared piano -1951 iv 5. For piano I - 1952 6. For piano II - 1953 8. Suite (I) - 1954 i 9. Suite (I) - 1954 ii 10.Suite (I) - 1954 iii 11. For piano with preparations - 1957 i 12. For piano with preparations - 1957 ii 13. For piano with preparations - 1957 iii 14. For pianist - 1959 CD2: 1. Duo for pianists I - 1957 2. Duo for pianists II - 1958 3. Duet I (for piano four hands) - 1960 4. Trio II (for piano four hands and percussion) - 1961*

Personnel: John Tilbury (piano); Christian Wolff (piano [CD2 only]); Eddie Prévost (percussion*)