By Michael Ullman
The Lynne Arriale trio offers the kind of mutual responsiveness that only the best small groups attain.
Chimes of Freedom, Lynne Arriale Trio (Challenge Records)
Pianist Lynne Arriale’s new disc, her 15th, begins with a distinctly threatening version of a what is often treated as a nostalgic blues tune, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The theme statement is made over the recurring waves of shimmering sound made by the crashing cymbal of drummer E.J. Strickland. He sounds as if he is out to present a challenge rather than provide accompaniment. Arriale and her ally, bassist Jasper Somsen, deliver a fierce response. I was struck by the pianist’s neatly articulated single notes, played over a sometimes submerged left hand, and by her strong chording. On “Motherless Child,” she moves higher into the treble as the tension increases. She then pounds out the melody with both hands. This motherless child is putting up a fight.
The tension in this performance suggests political undercurrents. What follows are the seven movements in a suite composed by the pianist, and then two covers: Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” both sung by K.J. Denhert. Arriale’s suite kicks off strenuously with “Journey,” which is meant to suggest the immigrant’s path. Again, she offers particularly powerful two-handed playing: her introduction is a series of quick phrases mimicked by the drums and bass. She announces the beginning of her improvisation with a single thumped chord that acts as a springboard for the succession of crisp single-note lines that follow. To my ears, she has never sounded so turbulent — or as clear-sighted. Her notes sound etched rather than merely played. Appropriately, “The Dreamers,” a tribute to the 800,000 immigrant children we have dubbed “dreamers,” is a gentler piece, as is “Hope.” The latter is enlivened by the striking clarity of her articulation, this time in singable lines. Somsen’s lyrical solo is a bonus: the trio offers the kind of mutual responsiveness that only the best small groups attain. My feeling is that Arriale wants to remain hopeful; one of her most memorable compositions here is “Lady Liberty,” a slow, dignified piece that suggests steadiness and poise. It’s beautiful: charming yet also poignant. Somehow it also makes me want to salute. Her last piece is “Reunion,” a celebratory march. Reunion may be the dream that underlies all the others.
The disc, though, ends with the songs by two of our most garrulous lyricists, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. “Chimes of Freedom” proffers far-flung and far-fetched lyrics. Remember “Midnight’s broken toe”? To this listener, Dylan’s genius does not lie in his surrealistic lyrics, but in his ability to somehow move beyond the words to generate real empathy, even anguish, for, in this case, immigrants, soldiers who refuse to fight, and the plight of underdogs in general. Singer Denhert doesn’t attempt to express the full range of Dylan’s bitterness; instead, her singing serves up a carefully enunciated, crystalline quality, like Arriale’s performances. “American Tune” comes off as more resigned: the song “don’t know a soul who’s not been battered.” Simon’s besieged narrator subsequently dreams of flying, specifically above the Statue of Liberty, which is striding away. The tune ends up being an improbable revision of the American dream. You can’t be forever blessed, but tomorrow is another day. Both lyrical and cautionary, this fine disc from a state-of-the-art trio seems to embrace Simon’s ambiguous message.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.