Album Roundup: Adventurous Solo Performances from Jazz Pianists

By Jon Garelick

Solo performance is still a way ahead for jazz pianists, judging from four CDs released in 2021.

When one thinks of solo jazz piano, Keith Jarrett comes immediately to mind. He blazed new directions for jazz piano — and jazz itself — in many ways, but the most influential recording of his career remains The Köln Concert (ECM), released in 1975, a completely improvised one-hour live performance, which is reportedly the best-selling piano recording in history.

These days, solo piano discs arrive regularly, some completely improvised, some not, and some even following the Jarrett model of live concert recordings. This year’s batch includes notable releases from the French pianist Benoît Delbecq (The Weight of Light, Pyroclastic) and New York musician Matthew Shipp (Codebreaker, Tao Forms), who has released at least a dozen solo CDs over the course of his decades-long career.

For the purposes of time and length, I’m limiting this discussion to four solo piano CDs released in 2021.

Craig Taborn — he taps the magic lode at the nexus of formal ingenuity and total freedom. Photo: Luciano Rossetti

Craig Taborn, now 50, has performed in all manner of contexts and with a variety of bandleaders, from James Carter to Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Tim Berne, and many more. For a while, during his tenure with Potter’s Underground band, he became the go-to guy for Fender Rhodes, updating the early Miles electric sound with acoustic bands and his own electronic experiments. But it’s with his own acoustic trios and solo work that he’s made the biggest impression — tapping the magic lode at the nexus of formal ingenuity and total freedom. The new Shadow Plays, recorded in concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus in March 2020, is his first solo disc since 2010’s Avenging Angel (both on ECM), and like that one, it’s totally improvised.

Improvised, yes, but the formal command is such that the press notes’ term “spontaneous composition” is apt. Taborn often likes to build from repeated rhythmic-melodic cells — a few notes or chords — and work them over obsessively as other ideas begin to stream out of him. Quiet passages melt away in ghostly sustains or merge with new ideas, the short, repeated patterns in one hand answered with longer phrases or unfolding melodies in the other. To borrow a term from visual artists, Taborn is noteworthy for his “variety of mark-making”: contrasting dynamics, varied textures and lines — smooth-flowing arpeggios and soft chords or darting, jumpy single-note runs and pounding chords, all executed with stunning finger work.

There are no tossed off romps here, and barely — except in a couple of spots — a hint at standard swing rhythms, nothing that even creates the illusion of an impromptu. This is work, maybe not for the listener, but certainly the artistic process as Taborn presents it. A comparison with a classical concert would be a program of Schubert and late-Beethoven sonatas and, oh, maybe Schoenberg’s “Three Pieces for Piano,” just to lighten things up.

But Taborn has an astonishing ability to sustain narrative tension over long spans of improvisation. Two of the seven pieces here are over 17 minutes long, and only a couple are under six minutes. The opener, “Bird Templars” (Knight Templars in service to Bird?), works its magic over an insistent trebly tremolo answered by widely spaced notes that don’t enter until the 49-second mark and then take nearly two minutes to wend their way down a major scale to the resolving tonic. That’s not a lot of musical action. But the narrative tension — the sense of anticipation — never lets up. The tremolos and answering figures egg each other on, consoling with chordal resolutions or brief melodic phrases, but not before those bass notes go to some very deep, dark, fortissimo places. The first “half” of the piece ends with the right hand drifting on arpeggios all the way to the tippity top of the keyboard with a sustained chord fading underneath.

A bit of melody enters as those chords fade — an introduction to what would otherwise be a second movement (there is no hard pause). And now what sounds like a slowed down and expanded minor-key version of that opening tremolo takes over — adamant, agitated — with climbing, aggressive lines against broadly spaced left-hand chords, a four-note repeated figure coming to a crescendo. The “first movement” tremolo returns, again with spaced left-hand figures, ending on an unresolved note. The journey takes all of 17 minutes.

Not every piece on Shadow Plays is so monumental (the title track tops it, at 18:37). But the disc never settles into sameness, and that narrative expectancy is always there, the conversation between left and right hands never resting, the ceaseless invention and virtuoso musicianship presenting one surprising event after another. “Discordia Concors” is full of flighty, impossibly precise single-note runs up and down the keyboard (offset by more soft, even jazzy, chords). “Conspiracy of Things” is downright boppish, even songlike. And the set closer, “Now in Hope,” suggests a ballad-standard stroll — maybe that was this concert’s equivalent of a Scarlatti encore.

Dan DeChellis, like Taborn, delivers a completely improvised performance on Breathe In (Sachimay), this one presumably in the studio. The pieces on it were recorded, his CD note tells us, “spontaneously and in one sitting” and left in the order in which they were played. DeChellis, who studied with Paul Bley and Ran Blake at New England Conservatory, has played a variety of genre-spanning music in his career, including what he calls “improvised classical.” He’s as interested in varied forms and textures as Taborn, but his Breathe In is on a different scale — 18 tracks, the longest at 6:05 (“Ten Year Lifetime”), the shortest at :55 (“The Bishop”), with eight coming in under two minutes (the album clocks in at 53 minutes to Taborn’s 76).

So, by comparison, it would be easy to think of DeChellis as a miniaturist, but these pieces are not “short” in content; nor is this the “process” minimalism of Taborn (or, for that matter, Philip Glass or Steve Reich). Whatever the abstractions from track to track (and there’s plenty of agitated pan-tonal exploration), DeChellis always returns to the development and resolutions of standard song form, if not standard 12- or 32-bar forms themselves. You can hear that most readily in the affecting tribute to late fellow pianist/composer Frank Kimbrough, a “free” blues with a beautiful, high-reaching “bridge” leading into the last verse. And the ballad “I Wonder If People Are Smiling” virtually calls out for lyrics in its repeated and altered phrases, sounding the query and attempting to answer.

DeChellis’s sequencing of these 18 pieces makes for ear-refreshing variety from track to track, and sometimes in a single piece. Like Taborn, he’s a master of contrasting dynamics, and he likes the sound of a decaying sustain bleeding from one passage to the next. The opening, title piece is introduced with a couple of notes four seconds apart, a dissonant interval, before other single hard-struck notes enter, then consonant chords and a melody, explored slowly over the piece’s three minutes and change, and some minor-tinged melodies with dissonant asides, ending with a chest-deep bass note. “Chatterbox” alternates playful fast rhythmic figures with delicate little runs and shifting dissonances. Sometimes DeChellis deploys “extended” techniques, plucking the piano strings like a harpsichord or strumming them like a harp. The intimacy of the recording is such that you can hear the dampers shifting with DeChellis’s pedal. No matter. This “flaw” is part of the album’s ambient vibe. A piece like “Social Resistance” has an almost Debussyian lushness in some passages. And his tribute to the late Harold Budd, “A Grateful Dance,” might be the one true minimalist piece, with its cinematic shifting major chords progressing and resolving (DeChellis might even be borrowing a bit of Budd’s “soft pedal” piano technique).

At any rate, Breathe In, like Shadow Plays, is a keeper — for its pianistic command and combination of improvisational surprise and compositional focus.

The relentlessly prolific pianist and composer Satoko Fujii (she celebrated her 60th birthday in 2018 by releasing a new CD every month) has worked in all manner of formats — duos, trios, big bands — all with an experimental edge (she studied with Bley at NEC at the same time as DeChellis). But Piano Music (Libra Records) is something else again: edited bits of “prepared” improvised piano recordings stitched together in two large sonic quilts, “Shiroku” (18:59) and “Fuwarito” (27:00). Fujii describes the process of fitting all the edits together as “like building with Legos.”

In the olden days, each of these long pieces would take one side of a vinyl record. Here, they segue one to the other without pause. Overall, the percussive thumps, scrapings, and oscillations some sounds more recognizably pianistic, others expanding in an electronic wash — take on the character of ambient music, but there are none of that genre’s reassuring static harmonies here. For example, the opening oscillating drone for “Shiroku” might suggest music for meditation — except that the occasional startling noises force your attention in an aggressive way unlike anything from Wyndham Hill.

“Shiroku” means “white” in Japanese, while “Fuwarito” is “softly and lightly.” The overall effect could be more like a soundtrack than anything else — for a very spooky movie.

Beginning with those heavy oscillations, “Shiroku” unfolds slowly with passages of static sounds punctuated with sharp, not unpleasant noise. Fujii created the improvisational source material from simple ideas — “one idea for each, like plucking strings, elbow on high strings, rubbing low strings with big felt mallet,” or dropping chopsticks on the piano strings.

As the soundscape unfolds in “Shiroku” (not like white noise, despite the suggestion of the title), you can hear piercing bird cries, whale songs, ominous rumbles like thunder, and sometimes recognizable plucked piano strings (occasionally suggesting the Japanese stringed instrument the koto), or even, at around the 16-minute mark, the sound of actual piano hammers hitting strings. The longer “Fuwarito” leans away from the drone of “Shiroku” with more discrete rhythmic elements.

But each piece creates a sense of drama, even without the standard procedures of rhythmic meter, key shifts, or even modernist organizing principles like tone rows. Fujii describes the editing process itself as a kind of improvisation. So oddly, she’s created an improvised solo piano recording through a combination of hands-on-the-instrument performance and digital editing.

Pianist Falkner Evans in 2021. Photo: John Abbott

Unlike the other solo-piano albums here, Falkner Evans’s Invisible Words (Consolidated Artists Productions) is based on written pieces rather than solely improvised. It’s also the one “occasional” work here — that is, tied to an event: Evans’s wife Linda’s death from suicide in May 2020. He calls it, in his liner notes, “a record I never planned to make.”

A New York musician since 1985, Evans has generally worked in bands, his and others’, and this is his first solo-piano album. The title comes from a note Evans found in Linda’s studio after her death (she was a visual artist as well as a teacher of Latin American literature) — music as “the invisible word, made visible through sound.” It turns out the note was a misquote of a line from the novelist Kate Mosse: “Music is the invisible world.” Close enough, and it gave Evans something to hang onto. And these eight modestly scaled pieces are lyric in the original sense: words for songs or, in this case, songs without words.

Even from the first, title tune, it’s not just the AABA form that suggests song, but the actual “syllables” of note phrases. Variations on “Invisible Words” show up in other songs here (and a final short reprise), even “You’re Next, Ladybug,” which suggests a bit of a Randy Newman stroll in some of its bluesy phrasing and has a more wandering improvisational form.

Given the inspiration for the album, the pieces stay close to ballad tempo throughout. The mood is elegiac, warm not morose. Suffused with that lyricism and love of melody, how could it be? “Invisible Words” begins with a minor-mode dissonant turn before finding its consonant footing. Darkness might have motivated these pieces, but they are ultimately affirmations, in form and act. Song form here is a kind of porous vehicle that allows emotion to pass easily through. The compositions themselves are playful as well as meditative, reflecting on various aspects of Linda’s personality as well as specific moments in her and Falkner’s life together. In some pieces — “Brightest Light” or “Breathing Altered Air” — a repeated phrase hangs on as if trying to hold on to a feeling, a spirit. In the latter, a new melodic phrase shows up near the end, a surprise visitor, and then disappears on a quietly ascending unresolved arpeggio. In its unrushed, meditative quality, this is music as a form of prayer.

Jon Garelick is a member of the Boston Globe editorial board. A former arts editor at the Boston Phoenix, he writes frequently about jazz for the Globe, Arts Fuse, and other publications.

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