Andrea Neumann

Pappelallee 5
absinth Records 016

Alberto Braida

Talus

Nuscope CD 1022

More so than for any other instrument, memorable solo performance has long been the testing ground and potential triumph for any pianist who wishes to fully exploit and herald his or her skills in any idiom. Improvised music is no exception, with keyboardists choosing to measure themselves in a line that stretches from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. While this proposition remains the same in the 21st Century, the process, planning and production of a solo piano disc takes on new dimensions.

Examine these notable sessions for instance. During the dozen tracks that make up his disc for example, Lodi, Italy-based Alberto Braida spends as much time playing inside the piano as outside. Even more purposely, on Berlin-based Andrea Neumann’s single track CD – which at 29 minutes is approximately one-third the length of Braida’s – not only doe she expose timbres from inside and outside the rectangular string-box, but she embroiders textures with a mixing deck and allows the music emanating from the apartments adjoining hers to bleed onto what’s being recorded.

Part of that group of mostly European improvisers who warp the expected sonic properties of their instruments transforming them into sound sources, Neumann – who has partnered with guitarist Annette Krebs and trumpeter Axel Dörner among others – could be said to be playing her surroundings as much as the piano. A variant of spectral music, the exposition here contains extended pauses; the woof and warp of timbre extension; rustling, rumbles and zither-like string plucks; plus miscellaneous scrapes and scratches. As electronics crackle and oscillations vie for space with string vibrations that gradually ascend stridently, this creation is the complete opposite of piano as cynosure. Along with the discord produced by exposing complex sound envelopes, the faint echoes of rigidly formal piano chording, guitar licks and lyrical flute tones from nearby rooms provide split-second contrapuntal comparisons with her pianism.

With Neumann’s creations sometimes slipping from one terminal of sonic creation to the other, harsh slashes, wood-wrenching tones and granulated flanges are also depicted developed alongside excruciatingly slow keyboard voicing, strummed internal strings and isolated key plinks. Eventually the resonating acoustic timbres and cranked-up electronic-affiliated textures collide, distort then meld into a flat-line buzz.

Linked more to the extended jazz tradition, Braida brings a relentless inevitability to his playing along with inspiration. The performance is usually confidently chromatic as it exposes his individualistic creative mulch of the blues, standards-references and Thelonious Monk-like angularity. Plus the pianist, who has recorded with saxophonist John Butcher and bassist Lisle Ellis among others, shuffles the tradition among internal piano string excavations.

A track such as “The Legs of the Moon” for instance, is extended and collated with passing chords and allusions that seem to bring Morton Feldman’s and John Cage’s values into the mix along with Monk and Cecil Taylor implications. Eventually rough, repeated syncopation gives way to microscopically illuminated singular key clicks. In contrast “Anarchism”, true to its title, appears be performed at an apocryphal half-fast tempo with high-pitched resonations colored and completed by slow-paced subterranean rumbles. With jagged timbres scratched from the keys rather than pressed when voiced, the exposition is reinforced with skewed honky-tonk cross tones. Eventually the pumping expansion moves past a flirtation with Impressionism to a ratcheting contrapuntal melody in the keyboard’s highest range.

Monk allusions come through most strongly on the final and penultimate track, with the last sounding as if its lyrical waves with cascading bluesy undertones are about to become “Blue Monk’ any second. Smooth and andante, this “Ghosts on the String” also includes split-second invocation of pop melodies. As for the penultimate “Atil”, it lines up sprightly and slippery adagio form variations with sinewy methodical coloring; and fuse into a climax that is both key-clipping tough and wedding-march like glossy.

Seemingly more relaxed on shorter tracks, Braida also varies his pacing. Lyrical lullabies and off-centre slips and pops can be on show in parallel narratives; so can pre-modern near-stride intonation or layered repeated motifs that bond into a near-opaque interface. Other procedures include flattened pedal stops, knife-like key stabs and harp-like glissandi.

One of the defining performances is on “Rock and Bells” – a tribute to Elvis and Ayler perhaps? – which is simultaneously tough and airy. With items inserted among the instrument’s strings, what results is a keening kalimba-like interface. But these timbres are balanced by resounding block chords. Working his way up the scale, Braida’s supple hand-jive not only exposes discursive clacks and snaps, but somehow also manages to allude to balladic forms propelled with Céline Dion-like intensity.

Although Braida’s creations will more likely have more of an appeal to those who prefer pianos to sound like pianos, both these memorable discs outline equally impressive individual approaches to singular improvising.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Talus: 1. Sand in my Shoes 2. The Legs of the Moon 3. Anarchism 4. Larius 5. Senz’ombra 6.Rocks and Bells 7. Pixie’s Pic 8. The Next Meal 9. Riding with Ghosts and Stones 10. Non Detto 11. Atil 12. Ghosts on the String

Personnel: Talus: Alberto Braida (concert grand piano)

Track Listing: Pappelallee 1. Pappelallee 5

Personnel: Pappelallee: Andrea Neumann (inside piano and mixing desk)