Kaja Draksler

The Lives of Many Others
Clean Feed CF 286 CD

Satoko Fujii

Gen Himmel

Libra Records 101-033

Myra Melford

Life Carries Me This Way

Firehouse 12 Records FH12-04-01-18

By Ken Waxman

Solo sessions of any sort are demanding; they’re even more so when the piano is involved. That’s because, consciously or not, the player has hovering in the background the entire solo jazz piano history from Jelly Roll Morton to Cecil Taylor. Three pianists from three different continents face that history imaginatively with these releases.

American Myra Melford takes an ingeniously representative approach on her first-ever solo disc, with 11 compositions inspired by Sacramento-based visual artist Don Reich (1931-2010). Although many of the tracks share titles with Reich paintings, Melford is a canny enough stylist to avoid overt connections. For instance her stark rendition of “Japanese Music” reflects Reich’s muddy, muted pastels without injecting any false Nipponese sounds.

Cubist inferences that suggest Léger, Braque and Picasso appear in the paintings. But just as Reich’s techniques filtered these influences with a unique blending of translucent layers of color to create greater depth. Melford’s composing and playing evolves in a similar, singular fashion. Whereas the painting of “Piano Music” for instance resembles an X-ray of the instrument’s innards, Melford attains the same skeletal effect with sparse lines which emphasize low tones as she advances the theme through hunt-and-peck key clips plus swift contrasting dynamics. Should some themes draw on the angularity of Taylor and Monk, then others such as “Park Mechanics” which reflect painted oblique and akimbo limbs and machine parts, reference earlier styles. Here blues and boogie-woogie syncopation is strained through Tristano-like steeliness. The most obvious separation between the sonic and visual art is “Curtain”. While Reich’s painting is placid and pastel, Melford’s music is studded with reverberating chinks and rushing percussiveness.

Death and its consequences are also cited in Gen Himmel, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii’s first solo session since 2004. Translated from the German as “Skyward”, the dozen brief meditations are obtusely dedicated to recently deceased associates. But the overall mood is tranquil and hopeful not pitiful. Throughout, peaceful tracks such as “Summer Solstice” manage to skirt melancholy as rhythmic key clips and echoing inner string plucks give the melodies buoyancy. With some tunes more flowery and some based on rhythmic pedal point, Fujii describes the affirmative virtue of death’s transformative powers with her measured playing and the title of “I Know You Don’t Know”. Nonetheless her most characteristic statements are elsewhere. Heavily metrical “Take Right” is the most jazz-oriented of her compositions, which doesn’t stop it from taking the shape of a mini-concerto with koto inferences in her methodical string swipes. Adding staccato slides plus nimble chord substitutions as she plays, it’s a descriptive instance of dazzlingly intensity. More Europeanized in this context with tempered harmonies, the concluding “Der Traum” (“the dream”), is a summation of all that came before. Using stop-and-start harmonies to mitigate sadness and acceptance, the piece is constructed out of constantly repeated simple phrases. The final variant is never completed, with the gap suggesting loss and renewal.

Representing a different direction and mindset is Slovenian Kaja Draksler. The seven tracks on this, her sixth disc, appear to have as many non-jazz as jazz antecedents. Someone who has composed for the Slovenian Philharmony Orchestra and mixes Bach-inflected counterpoint and Chopinesque flourishes with staccato runs and percussive resonation, only on “Army of Drops” does her speedy syncopation approach the sort of jazz-like interface that could have been suggested by her studies with Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran. Yet even here swing inferences are secondary to a virtuosic busyness that seems endemic to so-called classical performers. Luckily she keeps this tendency in check and often uses a reassuring Baltic romanticism to chisel the rougher edges that appear endemic to her playing. Some tunes are all about the jagged rhythms that can be scratched from stopped internal strings; others use the keyboard to express moods and colors without motion; many are segmented into several contrasting sequences.

The most typical and extended of these is “Suite: Wronger: Eerier: Stronger Than (Just a Thought): I Recall” where the appeal is technical rather than emotional. Rampaging through the instrument she easily demonstrates her ambidexterity. She sources light plinks from one hand and cascading cross tones from the other; rapidly transitions to sharp jabs and internal wood scrapes; injects warm glissandi which are quickly stopped by single percussive notes; and after transforming low-frequency runs to throbbing chord clusters concludes with a gentle coda of restrained pulses.

The Lives of Many Others finds Draksler at a crossroad. While technically outstanding the pianist is still symbolically trying out others’ musical lives with her keyboard and compositions, deciding whether to become an improviser or notated composer. Perhaps with more experience she will discover that neither has to exclude the other. Certainly Melford and Fujii confirm that thesis with the high-quality solo sessions here.

Tracks: Life: Red Land (For Don Reich); Piano Music; Japanese Music; Attic; Curtain; Moonless Night; Barcelona; Sagrada Family; Still Life

Personnel: Life: Myra Melford: piano

Tracks: Lives: Lives: The Lives of Many Others; Vsi so Venci Vejli; Communicational Entropy/Andromeda; Suite: Wronger: Eerier: Stronger Than (Just a Thought): I Recall; I Walked into Yesterday; Army of Drops: Delicious Irony

Personnel: Kaja Draksler: piano

Tracks: Gen: Gen Himmel; In The Dusk; Hesitation; Take Right; Ram; A.S.; Dawn Broun; Summer Solstice; I Know You Don't Know; Ittari Kitari; Saka; Der Traum

Personnel: Gen: Satoko Fujii: piano

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2014