Julie Sassoon

Land of Shadows
JazzWerkstatt JW 127

Agustí Fernández

Pianoactivity\One

Sirulita 1201

Pat Thomas

Al-Khwarizmi Variations

Fataka 4

Matthew Shipp

Piano Sutras

Thirsty Ear

Less of a arduous challenge than a literal record of a keyboardist`s skill at a particular point in time, the solo piano disc is still a milestone in the career of any improvising musician. Although much more common than in years past and latterly joined by innumerable other unaccompanied showcases by reed, brass, string and percussion players, the historical heft of a piano disc is still significant.

Stripped of anything more than ideas and talent, the keyboardist is joining a lineage that stretches from Jelly Roll Morton through Art Tatum, most definitely includes Cecil Taylor and is a straightforward attempted to demonstrate his or her skills. Fortunately the four keyboardists here rise to the challenge, but in individual fashion.

Much like chamber recitals dedicated to intermezzos or fantasias, Catalan Agustí Fernández on Pianoactivity\One and the UK’s Pat Thomas with Al-Khwarizmi Variations have chosen to frame their experimentations in the form of nearly a dozen variations on a bedrock theme. True to her education in notated musical techniques plus and her reliance on the song form, British-born, Berlin-based Julie Sassoon’s six tracks are more airy and linear –nonetheless their buoyancy includes a durable core. Odd man out in this company and the only American is Matthew Ship. His 13-track recital not only has more overt links to earlier Jazz forms, but in contrast to all original programs of the other three, he also interprets John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti”.

Shipp, who has recorded several previous solo sessions and plays with Free Music heavyweights from both sides of the Atlantic, is magisterial and swinging throughout Piano Sutras. Notwithstanding the title, the disc is anything but pseudo-New Age. Besides expressive blues and honky-tonk intimations, there are tracks such as “Cosmic Shuffle” where Shipp’s walking bass line suggests he could be playing a half-remembered ditty from a Black Broadway musical of 1927. Other pieces, such as “Fragments of a Whole” – a symbolic title if there ever was one – join febrile avant-garde-styled changes to a theme that appears to have as many notes and extended phrases as anything recorded by Lennie Tristano or Tatum. Again, although the two Jazz standards include cascading note pulsations, the sympathetic syncopation that enliven both treatments make them as relaxed as they are reverent. The defining Shipp shape really comes forward in tunes such as “Blue to a Point” or “The Indivisible” however. Digging into the piano innards on the latter, it’s as if a shovel was vibrating its backboard. Using pedal strength to pulsate subterranean chords and echoes on the former tune, he displays a unique exposition of extended glissandi and pounded keys without destroying the linear narrative. Chord substitutions and multiphonics appear, but are judiciously subordinated to his variations on the themes.

Someone whose precise and airy near ballads are far removed from the Shipp orbit is Sassoon. More thought out, her six-tune program and affiliated DVD encompass an unsaid story that involve the bittersweet experiences of a Jew moving back to a Germany that murdered and/or expelled some of her close relatives. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t sinewy, sometimes soundboard-shaking power expressed along with meditative romanticism here. Then just when you think she has fully expressed her ideas via exquisite chording and a balladic tinge, she ups the ante by appending contrapuntal wordless vocals in an affecting soprano tone.

This is especially apparent in the more than 19-minute “New Life”. A comprehensive rush of cross tones and high-frequency chording, “New Life” evolves in several movements. By the middle section, the busy and staccato introduction has been traded for a moderato centre that relies on an overlay of near-rococo, supportively emotional phrases that share space with friction-ridden notes plied out of the piano innards. Finally with a touch of recital-ready virtuosity she slows the composition down to relaxed exuberance. In another example more than one theme appears as she works through “Forty-Four”, and with her melodic wordless singing and Eastern European chording defines the narrative so that it becomes sensibly romantic. This careful voice, key and string balance is maintained throughout the disk as muscular chords share space with vulnerable melodies and impressionistic phraseology is succeeded or preceded by rough clinks and clanks on the keyboard.

Buoyancy and brawn are present on the other two CDs, along with the distinctive extensions from piano preparations. Fernández, a veteran solo player, uses the 11 tracks here to express what he calls his “natural piano playing”. Evidently he hasn’t collaborated with a clutch of important musicians without developing a cerebral concept and whether he’s plucking sharp guzheng-like arpeggios from within the instrument or purposely hunting-and-pecking for the perfect keyboard chord, his naturalism is tinged with fluency. Fully conversant with improvised music, he also draws on his conservatory training. A track such as “Pianoactivity VII” for example is rife with Rachmaninoff-like flourishes. Throughout intensity is expressed through low pitch-emphasized chords that line up into masterful strums. Conversely “Pianoactivity IX” is an extended exercise in precision, with dissonant tones created so that they echo as if they’ve been struck by a tuning hammer and swell to polyphonic reverberations via keyboard reverb. Concluding with a sequence that includes a bountiful romp through the most elevated key pitches, the most rewarding improvisations are those which blend a variety of genres such as “Pianoactivity II (Constanza)” and “Pianoactivity V”. The first showcases digging so far into the staccato qualities of the piano strings that the resulting strokes echo from the capotes and action and key bed. Yet these harsh, spinet-like resonations are stabilized by reflective measures. Ending with a climax in which distinctive timbres reverberate upwards, the latter tune highlights a thrilling keyboard ostinato that follows zither-like twangs and cuckoo-clock-like resonations.

For his part, Thomas, a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, who often restricts himself to electronics, evidentially treats his 10 piano variations as a respite from anything more pre-conceived. At the same time this doesn’t mean that his variations are inchoate. For example “Variation 1” is as formalist in execution as it is exploratory, with the sequence moving from brief clips and clanks to jagged knife-edge patterns before a key-clicking ending that brings a feeling of expected release. Just the opposite, “Variation 8” is a fantasia created by rapping the taut strings for maximum percussiveness. In the same way the leisurely concluding track also includes complementary vibrations that continue to echo harmonically from the piano’s, dampers and backboard after the final note is heard

Another difference uniting Shipp and Thomas and setting the two apart from Sassoon and Fernández are the Jazz-like insinuations in their playing. Although Thomas’ basic Free Music conception lacks the funky sensibility of the American’s, especially on “Variation 4”, when his playing become more measured, a basic swing feel, with the occasional Stride interjections are heard. The resemblance is certainly closer to, say, Tristano, rather than idiom masters such as James P. Johnson or Ray Bryant, but the staccato judders list towards Jazz. Perhaps that’s why the final sequence of “Variation 4” is overtly straight and processional. Thomas expresses himself uniquely as well, at points mixing his staccato squirms and comprehensive glissandi with hand taps on the strings that almost appear to come from mallets.

In short the originality of solo playing is celebrated on each of these discs, with each person approaching the 88 keys a different way. Each deserves its audience.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Land: 1. Just So 2. What the Church Bells Saw... (Part 2) 3. Forty-Four 4. Land of Shadows 5. Shifting 6. New Life

Personnel: Land: Julie Sassoon (piano)

Track Listing: Al-Khwarizmi: 1. Variation 1 2. Variation 2 3. Variation 3 4. Variation 4 5. Variation 5 6. Variation 6 7. Variation 7 8. Variation 8 9. Variation 9 10. Variation 10

Personnel: Al-Khwarizmi: Pat Thomas (piano)

Track Listing: Pianoactivity: 1. Pianoactivity I 2. Pianoactivity II (Constanza) 3. Pianoactivity III 4. Pianoactivity IV 5. Pianoactivity V 6. Pianoactivity VI 7. Pianoactivity VII 8. Pianoactivity VIII 9. Pianoactivity IX 10. Pianoactivity X 11. Pianoactivity XI

Personnel: Pianoactivity: Agustí Fernández (piano and prepared piano)

Track Listing: Piano: 1. Piano Sutras 2. Cosmic Shuffle 3. Surface to Curve 4. Blue to a Point 5. Cosmic Dust 6. Giant Steps 7. Uncreated Light 8. Fragment of a Whole 9. Space Bubble 10. Nefertiti 11.Angelic Brain Cell 12. Silent Cube 13. The indivisible

Personnel: Piano: Matthew Shipp (piano)