British Piano Man Links Up with Canadian Improvisers

Stephen Grew in Toronto
August 11, 2006

Substituting just one particular sound for another during a free improvisation – as well as the passage of time – makes a noticeable difference as to how the other players respond. At least that’s what Lancaster, England-based pianist Stephen Grew demonstrated during a recent interplay with Toronto improvisers.

Grew, whose playing partners in the United Kingdom have included experienced improvisers such as bassoonist Mick Beck and saxophonist Evan Parker, worked with different trios of Canadian players in an early August concert. The British pianist was part of the ongoing interface series organized by the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto that matches visitors with different local musicians.

Overall, the first collaboration that night resulted in something close to free-for-all Energy music, while the second match up related more closely to electro-acoustic reductionism. Each featured Grew on piano and prepared piano plus a soprano saxophonist – Christopher Cauley on the first meeting and Kyle Brenders on the second – and a percussionist – first set: Joe Sorbara, second set: Nick Fraser. But the substitution of Jonathan Adjemian’s analog synthesizer for Scott Thomson’s trombone later in the evening altered the interaction considerably.

Somewhat diffident at first, Grew initially alternated between single key pitter-patter and flying arpeggios. Post cards positioned on top of exposed piano strings muffled certain timbres, while he exposed others by whapping selected strings with vibraharp mallets. Bending almost double from the waist, Cauley slurred and squeaked his curved soprano then added vocal onomatopoeia to advance the music. Thomson varied his textures between short crisp notes and exaggerated wah wahs. By the end of the set plunger tones were elongated as he pulled apart his slide struts, repeatedly manipulating the parts as if was an assembly line worker.

Creating a similar image at one point in the set, Sorbara repeatedly rasped on the edge of his ride cymbal as if he was using a cross cut saw on recalcitrant metal. Other than that, however, he was the soul of restraint, sporadically ringing an undersized bell or ping-ponging beats on a tiny tambourine resting on his snare. Glissandi arpeggios and snaking finger motions were put into play by the pianist to match the other players’ output. But at certain times his often delicate voicing and light touch seemed not responsive enough, so he laid out and let the other three play.

More experimental and low key, the collaboration with the second trio was a symphony of small gestures. Using one cloth-covered snare, a wood block, unattached cymbals and what seemed to be knitting needles Fraser made Sorbara’s previous stripped-down kit seem gigantic and proved that appropriate rhythmic verisimilitude involves more than striking the beat. Advancing a repertoire of split tones, slurs and tongue slaps, Brenders too was outwardly undemonstrative except when he wrenched his mouthpiece off the neck to quack duck-like. Meanwhile Adjemian’s synthesizer processed meditative outer-space like wiggles and squiggles, sometimes transforming the electronic contact by moistening the ends of the patch chords before inserting them in their sockets.

Grew, who in England often works in electronic music settings, appeared energized by the sounds around him. With anchored fingers he concentrated on one keyboard area at a time – usually the bass end – tapped the strings and creating swift percussive rhythms, sometimes in double counterpoint with Fraser. Unearthing a plastic drinking cup, he filled it with mallets to subsequently showcase the resonating shakes and rattles caused by its placement on the string set. At points he chorded simultaneously as well. Climatically he spanked the keys into high frequency clusters that as a finale melded with reed slurs, synthesizer pulses and cymbal pops.

Offering profound variations in a Free Music context, the contrasting sets confirmed the validity and excitement of these ad-hoc performances.

— Ken Waxman