Dreamy Piano

Marilyn Crispell solo
Buffalo, N.Y. April 13, 2008

Pianist Marilyn Crispell seemed to be negotiating an itinerary between elegiac and energetic during a solo performance at Buffalo’s Halwalls Contemporary Arts Center in mid-April. Surprisingly the first-ever gig in this upstate New York city for the Woodstock, N.Y.-native, her well-attended recital found the diminutive pianist scattering textures or smacking notes all over the keyboard while attempting to resolve those contradictions. Finally settling on the emotive side of the equation, she still managed to often expose thorny note clusters and a muscular touch along the way.

This back-and-forth journey from contemporary to experimental improvising seems to be a constant in Crispell’s recent work. Best-known for her tenure in Anthony Braxton’s quartet in the 1970s and 1980s, she now regularly plays with British bassist Barry Guy’s New Orchestra and small groups like the otherwise-European Quartet Noir, as well as performing and recording more meditative trio and solo sessions in the United States.

In Buffalo, beginning with a quarter-hour exploration of the keyboard’s darkest and lowest-pitched cadences, she gradually moved into a middle section that advanced the tempo from moderato to agitato, speeding up the time incrementally while imaginatively echoing note clusters from the sound board. Keeping her head down to concentrate more fully on the keyboard, she produced glissandi and portamento, encompassing single notes that were alternately immobile and pliable, with each hand occasionally advancing a different message. With her crystal-clear patterning, accentuated runs and similar tune finales involving singular tones reverberating from the piano’s insides, she brought out both the mystic and standard-like possibilities of John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” and her own “Song for Charlie.”

Later, longer explorations of Catalan pianist Augustí Fernández’s “Please Let Me Sleep” and Puerto Rican guitarist Tiszjii Muñoz’s “Fatherland”, followed by a brief, sprightly encore in response to a standing ovation, exacerbated these softer, balladic tendencies and some performance hesitancy. She later reveled that her visual reference to the score on the former tune was the result of transcribing from a CD what she thought was as a notated composition which turned out to be a free improvisation, when she questioned Fernández about it.

Meanwhile Muñoz’s composition included choruses that appeared to relate more to soundtracks like “Chariots of Fire” than free-form jazz. Especially highlighted were the romantic inferences ingrained from her years of classical piano training. At points therefore those uncomplicated and legato, almost formalistic cadenzas seemed almost a refutation of her mastery of Cecil Taylor-like dynamic dissonance that was on display in other passages.

Luckily as her hands moved crab-like across the keys or criss-crossed one another exposing highly accented notes, this lyrical prettiness was counterbalanced by surging chiming and clipping key pressures plus frequent recourse to a pedal point ostinato.

Fully satisfying for the audience, Crispell’s intense performance still revealed an ambiguity between harmony and dissonance in her playing that she will have to confront in the future. An intuitive improviser, the betting is that the pianist will resolve that paradox before too much longer.

— Ken Waxman

— For CODA