Brian Willson

December 12, 2005

Things Heard Unheard
Deep Listening DL 31-2005

Steve Lantner
Blue Yonder
Skycap CAP 018

Breathing life into the standard piano trio, these innovative CDs approach the familiar piano-bass-percussion grouping from different perspectives. Veteran Brooklyn-based drummer Brian Willson, on his first CD as a leader, builds the trio’s 10 improvisations from bottom up, while Boston-based pianist Steve Lantner’s five tracks work outwards from the keyboard.

Democratically there’s no space hogging here, with each leader intent on framing his work as an interlocking piece of a three-sided equation. Their names may be first in the personnel listing, but they’re first among equals. Willson – who shouldn’t be confused with the Beach Boy who spells his name with one “l” – for instance, features in his trio, Dominic Duval, the sympathetic bassist who has worked with most important Free Music stylists from pianist Cecil Taylor to multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee; and Sapporo, Japan-born pianist Yuko Fujiyama has played with violinist Mark Feldman and bassist William Parker among others during his 20 years in the United States. On the music faculty of Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music, percussionist Willson has played for Broadway shows, in chamber music settings, with minimalist composer Pauline Oliveros and leads a jazz band with saxophonist Salim Washington.

Lantner, whose playing and recording experience includes sessions with violinist Mat Maneri and soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo, fills his drum chair with tyro Luther Gray, a member of indie rock group Tsunami and the Stone House trio with alto saxophonist Rob Brown and bassist Joe Morris. Morris, also featured on BLUE YONDER, is best known as a guitarist whose associates have ranged from Parker to pianist Matthew Shipp.

Although age differences exist between Willson and Gray, both are sensitive listeners, and if the older man is cognizant of the subtle uses of additional percussion, neither overloads the rhythm’s role. It’s the same with the two double bassists – each provides a steady foundation on which the other musicians work and both impress with their supple soloing. This is some compliment for Morris who is a bass beginner compared to Duval’s decades of experience with the four strings. As for the pianists, Fujiyama holds her own, but her asides on the shorter tracks don’t come near the spectacular key manipulation of Lantner.

Although she unleashes some piano lines with the strength of a coiled spring, Fujiyama needs more space in which to romp. On “To Remember” for instance, her understated interlude turn to cascading waterfalls of off centre and quick patterning notes, linking up with Willson as he pops singular sounds from his kit and constructs shape-shifting rhythms. But that happens infrequently.

With the percussionist applying the timbres available from a singing bowl and Korean temple bells to augment the rhythmic landscape, the two most comprehensive pieces are “Constellations” and “Bit by Bit”. Pretty and purposeful, the former begins with unhurried impressionistic chording from the pianist plus sonorous and harmonically advanced bowing from Duval. But midway through Wilson picks up the shuffled tempo with press rolls and double-timed side cymbal clips. Answering are high-frequency cadences from Fujiyama and steady plucks from the bassist. Padding her accompanying cadences in the final section, the pianist allows Duval to bow resonant notes that lead into a series of shrinking vibrations from the pianist.

Finally given enough time – almost 10 minutes – “Bit by Bit” is the most overtly jazzy composition with Duval climaxing his solo and the tune with a Paul Chambers-like quick-finger summation. At the top, his tremolo voicing and the pianist’s corkscrew runs complement one another as they’re super-glued by Willson’s bonding bounces and rolls. Space freed up and initiated with a tambourine shake, the percussionist accordingly displays a kinetic series of snare rat-tat-tats, tom thumps and cymbal ratchets, but with such subtlety that Duval’s subsequent pizzicato musing is easily heard. Fujiyama delineates the finale with a series of uncomplicated but assiduous plinks.

Similar teamwork is showcased on BLUE YONDER, which at times puts you in mind of those classic advanced trio sessions of the ill-fated of Herbie Nichols. In a similar vein, Lantner treats every note as if it could be his last – which, sadly, in Nichols’ case wasn’t far off. Adroit and dexterous, Lantner approaches nearly every improvisation with the ferocity of a starving wolf. While he may tear great chunks of arpeggios and cadenzas away from the keys, somehow – to mix a metaphor – he doesn’t destroy or overpower the basic thematic elements contributed by the other members of his pack.

From the beginning, the pianist injects a nearly effortless swing into his soloing, with right-handed sluices meeting flashing cross chords. Added to this are steady wallops from Morris and lightly patterned flams from Gray. Although he may play indie rock, Gary’s rhythm is subtle here as the experienced Willson’s is on the other CD, yet strong enough to hold its own against the Lantner’s kaleidoscopic note placement and percussive key clipping.

“Hold On To” is Gray’s showcase, where a quasi-martial beat from snares, cymbals and toms, pulsates with Art Blakey-like reverberations. Vibrating notes off the drums’ wood as much as the skins, Gary seems to be leaning his elbows and palms into his solo as much as he uses his hands and wrists. Lantner’s response is a marvel of full- fingered, lively harmonies that ring as much as they reverberate then climax with right handed tremolo shakes.

Two-fisted, with the suggestion of walking bass from one hand, Lantner’s extensive reach produces bluesy accents from the other side of the keys on “Three or Four”. But his reach doesn’t exceed his grasp as he assembles a mound of polyrhythmic textures, and then breaks them down into accented runs as well as guitar-like arpeggios.

Although “Long Last”, the appropriately titled final track is the only one taken at a slower-than-ballad tempo, dynamic patterning allows the pianist to outline a complementary secondary melody in broken octaves. Bisected by a commanding walloping solo from Morris, Lantner wraps up the tune with unforced key movements.

Proving once again that conventional instrumentation doesn’t have to result in conventional music, both CDs are worthy of exploring. BLUE YONDER may have an edge, but only because it’s extended tracks allow more freedom for exploration.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Things: 1. Yuko I 2. Bird in the Temple 3. Fractals 4. Tibet 5. To Remember 6. Dear Charlie 7. Yuko II 8. Constellations 9. Bamboo 10. Bit by Bit

Personnel: Things: Yuko Fujiyama (piano and percussion); Dominic Duval (bass) and Brian Willson (percussion)

Track Listing: Blue: 1. Blue Yonder 2. If It Really Don’t 3. Three or Four 4. Hold On To 5. Long Last

Personnel: Blue: Steve Lantner (piano); Joe Morris (bass); Luther Gray (drums)