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In their solitude (solo piano CD reviews)

 

 

 

 

 

Alone at the Vanguard (Palmetto)
Fred Hersch

Live in Marciac (Nonesuch)
Brad Mehldau


Verge (Independent)
David Braid

The bottom line is that these three solo piano recordings are excellent. Together, they demonstrate a very positive blurring of jazz and classical music — Hersch, Mehldau and Braid make art that’s expansive in terms of genre and content, incredibly nuanced and rich in tone, and burbling and bursting with personal creativity.

In general terms: Hersch’s disc is about lyricism and a big, soft-edged tone first and foremost. That said, there’s a steely intelligence and fierce determination to perform at the highest level evident on his CD, which consists of the final set of a week-long engagement last December at the Village Vanguard. Mehldau’s discs (two CDs and a DVD) were recorded a while ago — 2006 — at a French festival’s concert. Most of the time, the playing is dense and dynamic, forceful and even visceral; indeed, the DVD reveals the spectacular physicality of Mehldau’s art, from its incredible technical requirements to Mehldau’s furrowed expression and closed-eyes altered state. Braid makes music that’s warm, supple and especially eclectic, since his esthetic embraces inside-the-piano preparations and extended techniques on three of eight tracks.

Hersch, who at 55 is the oldest of the three pianists, nods most often to the jazz tradition. His disc opens with a trembling In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and closes with an encore of Doxy that moves from abstraction to concreteness as Hersch moves through the Sonny Rollins tune. His set also includes a pretty exploration of Eubie Blake’s Memories of You and a knotty version of Thelonious Monk’s Work (Here’s a clip of Hersch tackling that tune during a 2002 performance in Brazil:)

 

An aficionado of Brazilian music, Hersch also interprets the major-minor choro Doce de Coco.

Several of Hersch’s originals are dedicated to jazz peers. The ambling Down Home is for Bill Frisell, and its folksy cadences and playful do recall some of the guitarist’s music. Lee’s Dream, for Lee Konitz, allows Hersch to delve jauntily into Out of Nowhere‘s changes. The pretty Pastorale makes the disc’s most overt connection to classical music, dedicated to Robert Schumann. That said, classical counterpoint, voice-leading and complexity are deeply woven into all of Hersch’s playing. Echoes is without dedication, and it’s simply a fast, stirring waltz that would strike many jazz fans as Herschian.

Mehldau’s repertoire choices are exceptionally varied. He revisits some of his 1990s compositions (Unrequited,ResignationTrailer Park Ghost), but his renditions have become more dramatic and simply larger, embracing more layers and motifs — even if they required game-changing levels of piano technique. A touch more austere for me is Mehldau’s Goodbye Storyteller (For Fred Myrow), although it develops eventually into a wall-of-sound passage. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

As for covers, Mehldau mines at least different territories. He plays tunes that older jazz musicians might play (Bobby Timmons’ Dat DereMy Favorite ThingsIt’s Alright With Me, transformed into a hand-over-hand marvel,Secret Love, transformed into a slow, sad meditation). He also plays more recent rock and pop compositions — the kind that jazz musicians now play in large part because Mehldau, now 40, started doing them more than a decade ago. These include Nirvana’s Lithium, Nick Drake’s Things Behind The Sun, Radiohead’s Exit Music For A Film and the Beatles tune Martha My Dear) The music is exacting, tumultuous and at times mind-boggling, relying upon the formidable power of Mehldau’s remarkably independent hands.

Braid’s studio disc draws the least upon materials from other composers. He does cover Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, but he eschews blowing on changes in the usual fashion in favour of playing with rhythmic and sonic possibilities. He also plays the Chinese folk song that he translates as Spring Garden Night, which in his hands is a show-stopper of mood and sonority, the result of Braid’s tinkering with the piano strings so that the instrument sounds more “Chinese.” (I know I posted the video below last week, but it bears a second view just to reveal Braid’s cross-cultural open-mindedness and inventiveness:)

Otherwise, the disc demonstrates the increasingly impressive breadth of Braid’s composing concerns. Le Phare,Semi-Unconditional and El Castillo Interior are sumptuous, deep songs in which Braid revels in classical, lyrical playing. If you like shorthand descriptions, you could say that Braid on these tracks comes in somewhere between Hersch’s lyricism and Mehldau’s brilliance. More significantly, I’d say, is the seamlessness to the performances that nicely blurs the distinction between what’s composed and what’s improvised.

Richmond Square is a fast groove tune that mashes up a Jarrettesque vamp fantasia with overdubbed, drum ‘n’ bass-inspired, inside-the-piano percussion. Bai Tian’s Day is a bit of exhilaration, and the closing tuneReverence, which Braid, a 35-year-old Torontonian wrote nearly a decade ago, is the disc’s “jazziest” selection — and an upbeat one it is at that.

Braid has neither the experience or reputation of Hersch or Mehldau, two musicians that I’m sure he highly esteems. However, the quality of the music on Verge, and the concert that he gave in Ottawa on the weekend (see below) suggest to me that Braid has the potential to ascend to their lofty artistic heights.

Bonus Mini-Review No. 1:

Given that Braid’s CD is a studio creation while the discs from Hersch and Mehldau are live recordings, you may wonder whether Braid can deliver the goods before an audience.

I caught his second set at Cafe Paradiso on Saturday night and can confirm that that he performs his music with great poise and imagination, and he connects with listeners through genial, self-effacing spoken introductions. He played Bai Tian’s Day, Spring Garden Night — surely a crowd favourite — and Reverence, but also his stark, stretching composition Resolute Bay (Parts I and II) and Wash Away, a waltzing ballad that blended the influences of Frederic Chopin and Ray Charles. For encores, Braid played a stops-out, multi-style, theme-and-variations version of Yesterdays followed by an understated reading of the lesser-known ballad Wait Till You See Her (Braid told me later that he was smitten with the Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass version).

Paradiso can be a too-noisy place at times, but it was hushed for Braid’s concert. Simply put, everyone was entranced, well aware that they were witnessing something special.

Bonus Mini-Review No. 2:

Spirit Dance (Opening Day)
David Braid, Canadian Brass

This recently disc is an appealing jazz-classical hybrid, featuring Braid and the famed Canadian Brass interpreting eight Braid compositions before the disc closes with the pianist’s show-stopping arrangement ofYesterdays.

It’s fascinating to see Braid’s compositions and musical interests shared with the famed six-piece ensemble. Interior Castles (rendered as El Castillo Interior on Verge) opens the CD, its plaintive melody assigned to Jeff Nelsen’s French horn. Arranged for piano and brass, this piece grows more majestic and stately — and it’s not alone in that regard. There’s still room in the performance of Braid to improve in a supremely melodic, flowing way, supported by horn backgrounds, before the piece shifts to a rich passage for the Brass. I wouldn’t call this rendition better than Braid’s solo take on Verge — but it is appealingly different and beautiful too.

Temple Heaven Walk, inspired by a stroll Braid took in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park, reflect his sinophilia and breadth of musical vision. Like Spring Garden Night on Verge, the track features pentatonic materials and prepared piano to evoke Chinese sonorities.

 

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