Time Zones
Tompkins Square Records TSQ 2839-2

Margy Pargy
Splasc (H) CDH 874.2

Melody men above all, seem to be strange descriptions of avant-garde avatars Dave Burrell and especially Charles Gayle. But each singly lives up to the definition on these solo piano sessions.

Philadelphia-based Burrell, 66, who once composed a solo-piano opera, has always had a foothold in the pre-bebop tradition, despite his 1960s recording for ESP-Disk and his long association with Freebop saxophonists Archie Shepp and David Murray. More unexpected is New Yorker Gayle, 67, who is celebrated – or is it reviled – for his blow-torch tone on alto and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet. In 2000 however the saxophonist revealed jaw-dropping adroitness as a solo pianist on a collection of jazz standards.

TIME ZONES, made of all originals, is his half-decade later follow up to that disc. Organically it complements Burrell’s MARGY PARGY since both men have the stylistic dexterity that characterize Swing-Era-and-earlier pianists such as Earl Hines, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum. Simultaneously contemporary and traditional, like – in wildly different ways – Thelonious Monk, Jaki Byard and Ray Bryant are and were, the irony about these notable releases is that the pianism exhibited pre-dates the mature style of Cecil Taylor, who is a decade older than either of the men.

Something that could be characterized as a free-association parlor session, Gayle’s CD is as ornamental as his reed style is sparse and as consonant as his saxophone playing is dissonant. None of his seven originals are atonal. If anything the rent-party heft of boogie-woogie specialists like Jimmy Yancy and the decorative, continuous note-layering of Tatum are always present. While Gayle is nowhere as well-educated musically as Burrell, who attended Berklee College, the Boston Conservatory and the University of Hawaii, he’s also no naïf.

“Blues in Mississippi”, for instance doesn’t have the kind of elemental progression a true primitive like Little Brother Montgomery would have played. Instead Gayle sounds like both Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, constructing a tremolo blues, with cross patterns from both hands, emphasizing the walking interweaving blues progression in every note – sort of like a free form Bryant. His left hand always emphasizes the walking bass line, as his left hand decorates almost every cadence with some light-finger twirls. For a coda he lets loose with an exaggerated crescendo of blues notes.

Burrell’s “DB Blues” is less complex harmonically yet more sophisticated than Gayle’s outpouring, which has a certain sloppiness as well as ornamentation. While Burrell sounds the full theme metronome-like and completes his thoughts with a sprinkling of right-handed cadenzas. Gayle’s single-note ending is as swift and final as any of Count Basie’s.

Monk – who evolved out of James P. Johnson – is another influence on Gayle as he proves on “Rhythm Twins”, that may be a contrafact of “Rhythm-a-Ning” as well as “I Got Rhythm.” Flashier than Monk, here Gayle spools broken octaves with one hand and uses pedal pressure to produced a solid swagger. By the finale, however, he has reverted to Stride, balancing the upbeat with a downbeat from his left hand

Tinkling and chiming on the keys with high frequency dynamics and double-voiced arpeggios, not to mention sliding from mid-range moderato to the bowels of the soundboard, his phrasing tries to approximate Tatum’s. However, he’s more comfortable with nursery rhymes than the older pianist’s graduate-level layering. Through his rapid arpeggios and sudden tempo and voicing changes the implication is that half-remembered home songs lie just below the surface. It seems as if Gayle never plays one arpeggio when two will do or one chord when he can sound one dozen. Fascinating in his time shifting, turning almost every statement into a high frequency cadenza with boogie-woogie echoes define him as a parlor player par excellence.

Seventy years ago if Gayle would have been happiest playing on an upright in his parlor, then Burrell could have had a gig as the intermission pianist at a hot spot like Café Society. MARGY PARGY is a mixture of his originals and standards from the likes of Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter. And, unlike Gayle’s meanderings, which appear as if they could start and stop anywhere, every one of Burrell’s tracks has a form.

Powerful in his voicing as a Hines, and capable of bravura polytonal variations, Burrell is note perfect in his dynamics and manages to use the properties of the Steinway piano’s wood, strings and pedals as much as the keys. He alludes to other tunes through mere vibrations and uses the full sustain of the pedals to make his notes ring. Capable of hand-clapping rhythm as well as cerebral delicacy, he is also like Hines in that he can use both hands to keep two complete melody lines going at once.

On a ballad like “My Foolish Heart” his breath-taking variations buff up the standard, but the melody is always there like an embossed title on high-class stationary. Gauge his professional versatility by comparing his treatment of the title tune, his best-known composition and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”.

Drama implicit in the lyrics of “Lush Life” is emphasized as Burrell showily states the head, then produces logical variations on it. Adding an undertow of walking bass to counter with a rhythmic base the tune’s effete overtones, he quotes “Skip to My Lou” as he reduce the melody to its essence. Just as subtly the main theme slips out in proper cadence and voicing before the conclusion, decorated with dampened pedal movements.

When first recorded in the late 1960s, “Margy Pargy” proved that so-called avant-garde jazz could have a rhythmic function as heavy as R&B and still reference the tradition. This spectacular run-through emphasizes both pressured voicing and buoyant arpeggios that complement the hand-clapping rhythm. Without slurring any of the perfectly proportioned notes of the theme, Burrell manages to speed up the performance to frantic player-piano tremolo, down again to a moderato beats per second, and finally to an ending that echoes the chords of both theme and variations.

These are two satisfying piano CDs for anyone interested in the proper manipulation of the mini-orchestra.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Time: 1. Time Zones 2. Rush to Sunrise 3. Delight 4. Blues in Mississippi 5. Rhythm Twins 6. Inner Edges 8. That Memory

Personnel: Time: Charles Gayle (piano)

Track Listing: Margy: 1. I Only Have Eyes for You 2. Expansion 3. DB Blues 4. Prelude to Crucificado 5. Crucificado 6. Margy Pargy 7. My Foolish Heart 8. So In Love

Personnel: Margy: Dave Burrell (piano)