More Questions Than Answers
Delmark DE 560

Seventeen Pieces
Leo Records CD LR 417

Taking their own good time, the Boston and Chicago pianists featured here have at long last produced solo recordings after literally decades of performances and recordings in group settings.

Was this loss of solo virginity worth the wait? Well, as it would be sexually, the action depends on the individual. While both performances are memorable essays in keyboard virtuosity, the numerical promiscuity displayed may mean the two waited a little too long past their physical maturity.

Pandelis Karayorgis, the Boston pianist whose playing partners have included saxophonist Ken Vandermark and bassist Nate McBride, comes across like someone trying to make up for lost time. As its title indicates, SEVENTEEN PIECES crams that number of tunes into less-than-61 minutes of music. However Karayorgis does produce solo recasting of numbers he has recorded in group settings – tunes by Lennie Tristano, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, a couple of standards as well as originals.

Chicago’s Jim Baker, who over the past two decades has played with Vandermark, saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Michael Zerang as well as being house pianist at a weekly jam session, treats his reaching solo piano adulthood differently. Unlike Karayorgis, whose disc encompasses two 2004 dates, Baker recorded his 13 tracks in five sessions during 2003 and 2004. Also unlike the Bostonian’s CD, where all tracks are in the two, three and four-minute range, the Chicagoan improvises as concisely as slightly more than one minute, and as extensively as slightly more than 20 minutes. He also plays analogue synthesizer – an ARP 2600 – on three tracks. Nonetheless, since every one of the reflective tunes on his CD is an original, the casual listener has fewer signposts to follow.

In truth there are times when both discs turn a little snoozy, as your admiration for the individual’s technical prowess is coupled with the justifiable fear that the line advanced isn’t going anywhere.

Karayorgis, for one, sounds best when his admitted influences enliven his original tunes, or when he unexpectedly melds the style of one fêted keyboard man with the composition of another. His own “Centennial”, for example, a slow-moving, low-frequency fantasia is dedicated to Duke Ellington. Yet the Stride-like inferences in his layering makes it as much as a Monk homage as one for Ellington. Meanwhile, his hesitant, key-stabbing performance of another original – “Blood Ballad” – ends up sounding more like Tristano than the older pianist himself.

When he delves into familiar Ellingtonia, the process is even clearer. Diffidently voiced “Prelude To A Kiss”, which invokes contrasting dynamics and uneven voicing, ends up suggesting how Tristano or Monk may have approached the maestro’s work, not the Duke himself.

Taken quicker than usual, “Just You, Just Me” – usually titled as Monk’s contrafact “Evidence” – features shuffled pianism, as Karayorgis’ darts over the keys, mixing higher register cadenzas with contrasting right handed lines. He also manages to slip in a couple of references to “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”. Then there’s his version of Ra’s “Super Bronze”, which, rather than sounding far-out, is revealed as the bop-like blues it is. His treatment of it as a moderato, kinetic étude easily exposes the Arkestra leader’s links to earlier jazz.

Those are some of SEVENTEEN PIECES highlights, and overall, some other blues and ballads are pretty impressive too. But if only Karayorgis had expressed himself in greater scope somewhere on the disc.

Baker does that on the more than 20 minutes of the fearsomely labeled “Post-Industrial Societies and Their Precursors”. Building up to a series of cadences that elicit a waterfall of broken chords and tough, soundboard-ringing phrasing, the pianist overcomes his initial Tristano-like hesitancy. These ruminative reflections introduce moderated impressionism and steady tempered, modern patterning to the piece. But as diamond hard and lucid as his voicing might be, is he making any point beyond bravura? After all the piece doesn’t climax, it just fades away. Perhaps, unless you’re Cecil Taylor, protracted, atonal solo piano displays aren’t that satisfying.

Baker, whose composition titles are some of the wittiest going, scores better at mid-range. The slightly-more-than-seven minute “Infinity Trap Blues” for instance, turns out to be a light-toned, light-fingered fantasia of economical, metronomic shadings. “Hobbesian’s Choice”, on the other hand, is an unhurried examination of broken cadence, neither nasty, brutish nor short at more-than-6½ minutes. On it, Baker appears to be meandering all over the key looking for slight cracks between soundboard actions to emphasize with accented double timing

As for the modestly named title tune, in earlier centuries it could have been described as sort of cross between a capriccio and dump. Today the performance hints at half-forgotten, classic pop songs being gradually transformed with additional chording and singular note cadences. Baker’s skill is in mutating the familiar melody, until you realize that there actually isn’t a familiar melody.

Even the last track, “Through The Woods, Over the River” a lively exercise in polyphony, shifts when Baker allows a certain gravitas to creep in. Introducing neo-classical formalism, it ends hanging in the air, which may be metaphor for this session as well. Sounding like outer space wails for Klaatu, the ARP excursions distract rather than edify.

All in all, the pianists show that like love-making first-time actions – in this case solo – aren’t always as satisfying as they, and we expected. Profligate licentious and selective promiscuity may not be the perfect solution for solo piano, but they’re certainly more appealing and inspired then thwarted self-expression.

As they refine their techniques both men could end up in Monk’s or Tristano’s class, though likely not in Casanova’s.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: Seventeen: 1. In The Cracks Of Four -2. Straight Blues 3. Ugly Beauty 4. Criss Cross 5. Baby 6. Background Music 7. Blood Ballad 8. Disambiguation 9. Home 10. Super Bronze 11. Centennial 12. Gazzelloni 13. Prelude To A Kiss 14. Fink Sink Tink 15. I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance With You 16. Just You, Just Me 17. Summer

Personnel: Seventeen: Pandelis Karayorgis (piano)

Track Listing: More: 1. Watching The Interstate 2. Tolled Deadpan 3. Toesin Du Jour 4. Happenedstance 5. Post-Industrial Societies and Their Precursors 6. Infinity Trap Blues 7. Is It Still Mime If They’re Deaf? 8. Mourning Doves 9. Grey Comedy 10. Hobbesian’s Choice 11 More Questions Than Answers 12. Airstrip Vespers 13. Through The Woods, Over the River

Personnel: More: Jim Baker (piano and analogue synthesizer)