January 21, 2015
I've Been To Many Places
Thirsty Ear Recordings THI 57209.2
Concert in Paris
New Artists NA 1059 CD
OpenArt Records No #
For an unswerving improviser approaching a solo piano session involves more than collecting charts of his or her favorite tunes. While there may be direct or indirect references to known material – as two of these three sessions demonstrate – the fundamentals demand establishing a unique concept while in the midst of an involved – and involving – performance.
Interestingly enough, it’s the two American here, Matthew Ship and Connie Crothers, who refer to the so-called Great American Songbook while playing. Romanian Mircea Tiberian is more circumspect, although the titles of some of his originals suggest more linkage to standards than appear at first glance. Besides these songbook references, Shipp’s and Crothers’ recitals couldn’t be more unlike. Affiliated with the harder side of New York’s Free Jazz since the 1980s, Shipp’s 17-track disc links newest compositions with toughened revisits of tunes he has recorded before, usually in a group context. Captured at a Paris concert, rather than a New York studio like Shipp’s, Crothers confines herself to five improvisations. Each instance features a crystalline distillation of the style she has intuited since the 1960s, creating a unique keyboard conception following studies with Lennie Tristano.
In his new compositions – all of which like the title track appear to have enigmatically mythical or personal meanings for Shipp – the idea is to express all facets of pianism. That means that a piece like “Pre Formal” is dramatic and methodical, with the narrative as opaque as it is moving; while the buoyant “Waltz” appears to want to live alongside West Coast Cool rather than the gritty Lower East Side. At the same time the breadth of Shipp’s commitment is such that while influences like a Monkish angularity in some tunes, or a high-art, Horowitz-like formality in others, make appearances, his basic tremolo pulse is unaffected.
Searching improvisations are alluded to in the titles of tracks such as “Life Cycle” and “Brain Shatter”. The latter is devoted to rumbling bass clef explorations; and the former to developing secondary arpeggios which lighten the pressurized flows into the soundboard and harp-strings by dabbing moderato keyboard timbres among them. The so-called “covers” are distinctive in themselves, adding more musical brush strokes to the Shipp self-portrait. “Naima” is given a powerfully respectful reading with its majesty remaining intact, while “Tenderly” is deconstructed down to an exercise in passing chords. “Summertime”, which was nearly turned into a block of intense weightiness in a defining duo version with bassist William Parker, is if anything treated even rougher this time. With substitute chords bringing out a concentrated seriousness, Shipp’s tremolo variations still give a notable swing to the interpretation. Even the two versions of the lightweight “Where is the Love” evidentially grow a harder ecosystem in Shipp’s versions, losing their fluffiness in his virile key plumping.
More of a memorial to Parisian experiences then a career defining retrospective. Concert in Paris is shaped by Crothers’ keyboard command rather than overt emotionalism. Never as cool a player as Tristano-detractors have claimed, Crothers still appears to concentrate on the mechanics of the piano and piano playing rather than on individual tunes themselves. This is appropriately demonstrated as early as “Deuxième Naissance”, the first cut. With dramatic flourishes and galloping glissandi, the pianist’s output is both leaping and languid. Seemingly exploring every chord combination possible, ringing tones mark the sweep of her windstorm of improvisations. Remaining true to herself, the distinctive lines also reference Tristano’s pitching runs and Cecil Taylor’s kinetic advances.
Building new tunes out of contrafacts has always been a part of the Crothers style, but the key to her playing is that rather than quoting the skeleton of the melodies are used instead. What that means in practice is that throughout the concert high-frequency Bop and Cool insinuations show up alongside more obvious tropes. “Come Rain and Come Shine” and “How Deep is the Ocean” are noted on the CD cover and they come in for their share of variations on the concluding “Espoir”. However the essence of Crothers’ style is that these patterns appear elsewhere, perhaps even subconsciously as she plays. Isn’t that “The Man I Love” that smoothly segues through “Dans Mes Rêves”? Still her keyboard command is such that that tune’s lyricism takes its place among deep thrusts into the internal soundboard and some bows to more formal recital-style playing, leading to a temperate ending.
Distending the melodic into the syncopated is another aspect of her conception. And here, as on “Every Emotion is an Art – Ana”, there’s a continuous line of action during her solo, which refers in turn to Swing, Bop and cartoon villain-like theme music. Distending the melodic to its furthest point brings out both ruggedness and relaxation. The date’s only misstep almost occurs on “Homage aux Communards”, which is almost too extended. Luckily the two-handed darker lines and simpler softer voicing unite before they become too ponderous and melodramatic.
Tiberian, who is a professor at Bucharest National University of Music, has worked with international players of the caliber of trumpeter Herb Robertson, and clarinetist, Theo Jörgensmann. Solo, however, his playing is more moderato and less overtly experimental than the two American. Eastern European folkloric and contemporary notated music references make their appearance here alongside sequences that fasten onto inflections from Tristano and Bill Evans. Crucially his session of 11 originals is the most piano-oriented of the three, expressing the instrument’s properties as much as the music produced by it.
Most distinctive are “Nothing to Lose” and “These Eyes Which Had Never Seen” that seem to sum up Tiberian’s enigmatic improvising style. On the first tune he eventually breaks into a semi-Stride in order to liberate profound chording almost buried in the bass clef. Until that point he playing threatens to move from Tin Pan Alley insinuations towards the middle of the road. More instructively “These Eyes Which Had Never Seen” is a high-intensity exercise in following notes and tones family-tree-like to their most logical extensions. Gong-like resonation and pedal-pushing action torque the already high-intensity theme into waves of cross strums and pressure that doesn’t let up. Tiberian shapes distinctively strident harpsichord-like sounds on “Gestures”, with what appears to be running a metal comb over the internal strings as he plucks. The results shudder sweepingly original variations into the program. Then there’s the underlying ineffable swing of “Tango Blues”, where leapfrogging tone clusters vibrate every which way, but without directly referring to either of the named forms.
Because of his unmatched keyboard facility, the Romanian pianist has to be on high alert to make sure that his limpid romanticism maintains its overt links with Jazz conventions. Knife-edge approximations of contemporary European notated music are constant exploits with profit throughout. But when innate, serene, romantic, possible Ur-Romanian, dramatics reach the surface, there are times he veers rather close to Lounge territory before catching himself and hardening his responses.
All and all though, each of these players brings an individual identity to solo piano explorations with equally valid methods of exploration. All deserve investigation.
Track Listing: Places: 1. I've Been To Many Places 2. Summertime 3. Brain Stem Grammer 4. Pre Formal 5. Web Play 6. Tenderly 7. Life Cycle 8. Brain Shatter 9. Symbolic Access 10. Waltz 11. Reflex 12. Naima 13. Where Is The Love 14. Light Years 15. Where Is The Love (reprise) 16. Blue Astral Bodies 17. Cosmic Wave.
Personnel: Places: Matthew Shipp (piano)
Track Listing: Concert: 1. Deuxième Naissance 2. Dans Mes Rêves 3. Every Emotion is an Art – Ana 4. Homage aux Communards 5. Espoir
Personnel: Concert: Connie Crothers (piano)
Track Listing: November: 1. November. 2. Out of Nothing 3. Gestures 4. Obsession 5. The House Under the Table 6. Nothing to Lose 7. Seven Chords 8. Tango-Blues 9. These Eyes Which Had Never Seen 10. Corteggio 11. The Child King
Personnel: November: Mircea Tiberian (piano)