Solo playing has always been the make-or-break yardstick for pianists of any genre. That’s solo playing not playing solo, an important distinction which differentiates between exhibiting showy breaks and having an overall musical plan for the mini-orchestra that is at his or her fingertips. The solo challenge is more pronounced for improvisers since even if they’re interpreting compositions, originality is the paramount concern. These challenges don’t prevent pianists from trying their hands at solo sessions. But it’s instructive to note that the memorable ones, such as the piano dates here by an American, a Canadian, a Catalan and a Russian, use different strategies to attain matchless quality.

01_agusti_fernandezAgustí Fernández’s El laberint de la memòria (Mbari Musica MBARI 04 www.mbari­ is the closest to what many expect from a solo recital. That’s because the Barcelona-based pianist, best-known for his improvisational work with experimenters such as bassist Barry Guy, based the 14 ruminations which make up this program on 20th century Spanish so-called classical music. The originality results because Fernández doesn’t play any of that music but instead offers interpretations birthed from careful, repeated listening to many of those compositions. Fernández’s magisterial elucidations include such chamber music staples as subtle dynamic shifts and exposing waterfalls of carefully positioned notes, but he isn’t limited to flourishes. A kinetic piece such as Catedral for instance may have metronomic theme elaboration, but his touch is such that soundboard echoes continue to ring long after syncopated octaves flash and flow. More moderated tunes such as Tonada which melodically echo both Hatikvah and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child use both strains to never slip into bathos while sustaining a delicate interface. Balanced precisely, L’esmoldor not only proffers a baroque-like series of gentle key strokes, but contrasts them with kalimba-like string strokes. Also for every bouncing theme exposition or instance of breezy swing, Fernández brings a tougher stance to other tracks — or as contrast on the same ones. For instance his measured, mandolin-like strums on unwound treble strings during Pluja Sorda are coupled with repeated key slaps, with the narrative becoming more staccato as sympathetic rattles and rumbles move past the strings and soundboard and begin reflecting the timbres from key-frame wood.

02_kris_davisAnother sophisticated piano explorer is Calgary-born Kris Davis, whose musical studies in Toronto led to a New York career working with the likes of saxophonist Tony Malaby. On Aeriol Piano (Clean Feed CF 233 CD she delves into the instrument which can simultaneously express the qualities of a harp and percussion. She can do so at near-warp speed as she demonstrates on Good Citizen where high-frequency glissandi skip and slither across the keyboard until dynamic tremolos give way to hesitant plinks that could be recasting Chopsticks. She also plays at moderate tempos as on A Different Kind of Sleep, where tones unroll with taffy pull-like slowness as lower-pitched harmonies sympathetically ring. Mallet-teased strings dominate the exposition of Saturn Returns, working up to a broken-octave confrontation among internal string pops, wooden exterior slaps and stopped keyboard pulses. Her technique isn’t all reductionist though as she demonstrates on the first track which backs away from repeated flourishes and affiliated note exaggerations to reveal a balladic recasting of All the Things You Are.

03_denman_maroneyFernández’s and Davis’ under-the-hood, speaking-length explorations are taken to a logical extreme on Double Zero (Porter Records PRCD-4063 Inspired equally by the music of Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, Henry Cowell and Thelonious Monk, New York state resident Denman Maroney uses temporal harmony on what he calls a “hyperpiano” to produce a keyboard program in several tempos at once. The instrument’s strings are plucked, slapped and bowed after being prepared with copper bars, steel cylinders, Tibetan prayer bowls and rubber blocks. From the first literal discord heard on this nine-part suite, the crackling friction exposed insinuates harpsichord and Celtic harp quivers, as well as kalimba and guzheng reverberations plus suggestions of a metal saw. Still his subtle keyboard phrasing on tracks such as Double Zero Part II confirms that it’s a piano which is the major sound source. This program reaches its climax on Double Zero Part VI where Maroney`s arpeggio-rich continuum that’s almost impressionistic in its exposition unfolds alongside low-pitched, tremolo blows on the prepared strings abrasive enough to sound partials and extensions as well as root tones, involving the back frame, bottom board and capotes bar as much as the speaking length. Finally a series of sweeping glissandi are backed by cymbal-like reverberations for the finale. Elsewhere his staccato touch implies a duet between a portable keyboard and an all-metal double bass, although there are still enough cascades and pitch-sliding polytones audible that the pianistic balance is never subsumed by friction-laden clips or excited string patterns.

04_simon_nabatovA disparate but even more demanding approach to solo playing is displayed brilliantly on Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols (Leo Records CD LR 632 Unaccompanied and only using the instrument’s accepted range and properties, Simon Nabatov creates original takes on eight compositions by under-appreciated American pianist/composer Herbie Nichols (1919-1963). Although the scholarly, sporadically-recorded Nichols was Bronx born of Trinidadian parents and never lived anywhere but New York, Nabatov’s position as an outsider allows him to bring more than technical skills to a rethink of Nichols’ tunes. Russian-born and educated, Nabatov lived in New York for a decade and now resides in Köln. Closer to the European tradition than the composer, who admired Prokofiev, Nabatov’s approach often slows down the originals, introducing his own harmonic language to the late composer’s running chords and subtle swing. Hear this on a stately elaboration of The Third World. Persuasively elaborating Nichols’ polyphony with hard syncopation and popping stops, the pianist’s take is both chromatic and creative. Similarly his jocular version of Terpsichore contains enough showy glissandi to advance the juddering melody in different tempos, while the sprinkling of staccato pumps overlaid with harsh passing chords creates a recurring syncopation that builds excitement like the repeated coda on Count Basie’s April in Paris. The most profound example of the ingenuity implicit in Nichols’ writing and Nabatov’s playing occurs with Blue Chopsticks. Pushing the composer’s kinetic variant of the amateur pianist’s hoary chestnut even further out, Nabatov never loses the groove. Yet with staccato extrusions and discursive glissandi he’s able to simultaneously reflect the original line, Nichols’ rearrangement and his own variation on the theme.

Judging by these CDs, and how different each sounds, there appears to be as many original methods to treat solo piano playing as there are piano keys and strings.

Product of musical miscegenation, jazz has always been most welcome to sound influences. Meanwhile, much of so-called ethnic music, especially from non-Western countries, features some variants of improvisation. Blending the freedom of jazz with aleatory additions from other cultures produces provocative sounds as these CDs attest. Yet all are noteworthy because, rather than using either music as mere exotica or rhythmic overlay, each is performed with the same respect.

01_MahanthappaIndian-American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has dealt with his dual heritage before, but on Samdhi (ACT Music 9513-2, recorded just after he had attended an intensive two and a half week Carnatic music festival in India, it is upfront with the inclusion of the mridangam and kanjira drum playing of “Anad” Anantha Krishnan. Not willing to settle for mere Indo-Jazz lines, Mahanthappa also recruited guitarist David Gilmore and drummer Damion Reid plus Toronto electric bassist Rich Brown to lay down the sort of funk-inflected licks they would bring to a jazz-rock session. The most emblematic example of this is simply titled Ahhh. On the surface it sounds like a folksy tune with Mahanthappa’s saxophone taking the singer’s role. Yet beneath the folksiness Krishnan is pumping and double tapping as if he was on a Mumbai-recorded session, while at mid-point Gilmore and Brown churn double-timed licks as if preparing for an R&B gig. Meantime Mahanthappa’s reed line echoes as if he’s playing with a varitone attachment. Still the arrangement here is traditional enough to include a recapped head. A similar strategy is used on Killer, but there sax timbres reflect both jazzy slurs and a snake-charmer’s flute’s quivers. Overall the feature includes echoing vamps from Gilmore and Brown, heavy bashing from Reid and some shuddering frame-drum licks. With other tracks ranging from the mid-tempo ballad For all the Ladies, that includes delicate finger-style licks from Gilmore mixed with Carnatic beats, to Breakfastlunchanddinner suggesting what avant saxophonist Ornette Coleman would sound like if he played in a session built on powerful drum pops and twanging guitar runs, the sonic permutations and innovations of this CD are nearly limitless.

02_ElSaffirSo too are the polyphonic textures expressed by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble in a suite inspired by the ancient Mesopotamian god of carnal love and warfare that is Inana (PI Pi41 Mahanthappa was initially a member of this ensemble but has been replaced by saxophonist Ole Mathisen. ElSaffer, who studied Mangam vocalizing and playing the santour or hammered dulcimer in Iraq, utilizes Middle Eastern currents alongside his microtonal trumpet skills. The sextet is filled out by bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits plus two experts in Arabic modal scales: oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and Tareq Abboushi who plays buzuq or fretted lute. Throughout, Mesopotamian rhythms jostle against Balkan horn patterns, co-existing next to double bass slaps and percussion backbeats. Thus lockstep Europeanized harmonies often abut frenetic cadenzas from the soloists. Yet even at their most “ethnic,” Abboushi’s rasgueado string movements coupled with Mathisen’s multiphonic slurs could still be those of saxophonist John Coltrane working with guitarist Wes Montgomery. Furthermore, ElSaffar’s capillary blowing ranges from heraldic to hushed, with contrapuntal explorations reflecting Miles Davis’ experiments with modes and frequently seconded by bass-string pops and drum kit colouring. Note the allusions when a track such as Inana’s Dance (I, II, III) is contrasted with the extended Journey to the Underworld. On the former as free-form percussion ratamacues mix it up with layered horn notes, the tremolo trumpet slurs have more to do with New Orleans than New Babylon, while Abboushi could be strumming a Dixieland tenor banjo. Meanwhile the bassist walks as the different sections evolve parallel to one another. Journey to the Underworld, on the other, hand begins and ends with keening vocalization from ElSaffar that evolves to melismatic yodeling, with dumbek crunches, kinetic strumming and Arabic-sounding reed accompaniment. However the middle section balances on off-centre thump bass, rolls and rim shots from Waits, contrapuntal trills from Mathisen and sharper retorts from the trumpeter.

03_Baro_101These discs involve Westerners coming to terms with their dynastic roots, but Baro 101 (Terp Records AIS-19 follows a different path. Named for the Addis Ababa hotel room in which it was recorded, Baro 101 captures a jam session among free jazz improvisers, Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love who were performing in Ethiopia, and local Mesele Asmamaw, who plays the pentatonic scale-tuned krar or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre. Asmamaw creates licks that could be attributed to guitar, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar or string bass and the Europeans surmise different strategies to complement each twang. Gustafsson’s bulky snorts, resonating tongue slaps and subterranean burbles usually dominate the tunes’ percussive base. This leaves Nilssen-Love free to use everything from cross sticking to bass-drum clobbering as polyrhythmic responses to Asmamaw’s multi-string forays. Nephritic cries from the reedist merely deepen the creative tension. Alternately, when he’s fully in the moment, Asmamaw vocalizes in high-pitched Amharic, accompanying himself with rapid frailing. It’s likely the Arabic lilt that appears in Gustafsson’s riffs is purely illusionary. Yet his vamping counterpoint can be related to Scottish or Iberian bagpipe vibrations the same way that Asmamaw’s percussive finger-picking simulates a banjoist’s claw-hammer picking or a mandolinist’s rapid chromatic runs. Eventually, after many crescendos of saxophone tongue stops and altissimo slurs, steady backbeat or gliding stick pressure on the drums plus string patterns that use a wah-wah pedal as well as straight strumming, the three reach a satisfying climax of chromatic snaps, pops and plucks.

04_David_SaitAlone, but not quite solo, Brampton’s David Sait produces a unique take on mixing ethnic sounds with improv on History Ship (Apprise Records AP-05 Although he plays a 21-string Chinese guzheng or plucked, half-tube zither with movable bridges, Sait uses arbitrary tuning to produce alternative intonation that alters the expected timbres of an instrument whose antecedent was developed about 220 B.C. As the CD progresses, the results are simultaneously deconstructed and cacophonous. Plus he adds samples of echoing voice to further counter any tendency towards the harmonious. By the time The Bells of Ischgl arrives, Sait’s improvising resembles that of two tandem guitarists, one whose crunching runs are bluesy and the other whose slurred fingering layers tone extensions on top of individual plucked notes. Processed samples, introduced here and on the concluding Wood Stack Rockslide Avalanche make the sequences dissonant, inchoate and fascinating. Creating additional percussion sounds by hand hammering the strings, while elongating glissandi so they judder as much as they skim, Sait formulates oscillations that should come from electronics but are created acoustically. Similarly, bent notes alongside distorted flat picking coupled with sampled drum smacks create a bottom for his experiments. Decisively he isolates the occasional harp-like arpeggio so that the buzzing interface plus abrasive wood patterning don’t completely obliterate string characteristics.

Using an ancient ethnic instrument for 21st-century improvising, Sait creates a soundfield well worth exploring, as do the other CDs here, which bend and blend traditional non-Western music with free-form improvisation.

01_Kenny_WernerMe, Myself & I
Kenny Werner
Justin Time Records JUST 248

Kenny Werner has been around for a long time, is a brilliant pianist, accompanist, composer and educator, and yet somehow has never received the public recognition he deserves. This album was recorded at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in June 2011 as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival and the choice of music ranges from such standards as Round Midnight, Blue in Green and Giant Steps, to Joni Mitchell’s classic I Had a King and the pianist’s own gem, Balloons. There is an ethereal quality to the music right from the opening bars of the first cut which is sustained throughout the album.

Balloons is literally inspired by the life and death of helium balloons. Balloons bought for his daughter’s birthday would float up and touch the ceiling, but eventually they’d come down. So the tune is sort of a musical joke — a balloon from the party to its end. If you recognize something familiar in the performance of Balloons, it has the recurring strain of Barbara Allen, a 17th century Scottish ballad inserted a couple of times, perhaps because the Werner original is about the life and death of a helium balloon and the ballad is about the death of a young love.

Giant Steps turns into a flight of fancy while A Child Is Born is a delicate, introspective voyage of sensitivity taken with haunting simplicity. There is nothing negative to say about this CD. I have been a Kenny Werner fan for many years and I have never heard him play better than he does on this recording.

02_Melissa_StylianouSilent Movie
Melissa Stylianou
Anzic Records ANZ-0036

On this, her fourth album, Toronto-born, New York-based vocalist Melissa Stylianou sings with endearing sensitivity and ample heart. Pleasing to the ear, her voice is higher in range than most jazz singers, occasionally soaring majestically but for the most part remaining understated, focused on the words she sings rather than the sounds she produces. Stylianou’s eclectic taste for repertoire here blends standards and originals with a range of contemporary material: James Taylor, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, avant-garde folk singer Joanna Newsom and Brazilian pop star Vanessa da Matta. Brilliantly arranged to suit Stylianou, these covers provide some exquisite musical moments.

Perhaps the only downside to recording such excellent covers is that the artist’s own originals do not shine quite as brightly. But the album has numerous highlights including Simon’s Hearts and Bones, da Mata’s Onde Ir, Newsom’s Swansea and a stunning take on one of jazz’s most sentimental standards, The Folks Who Live on the Hill, delivered here with supreme sincerity. All four tracks benefit greatly from the vibrant work of multi-reed player Anat Cohen, appearing here on clarinet, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone. Guitarist Peter McCann is a sympathetic asset throughout, and cellist Yoed Nir is a nice added touch on a few tracks. That said, the entire band cushions Stylianou admirably throughout this beautifully produced, refreshing recording.

03_Halie_JorenHeart First
Halie Loren
Justin Time JTR 8573-2

Singer Halie Loren’s Heart First is what I think of as get-out-the-hammock music. The evocation of lazy hours on the porch in a sultry locale hasn’t so much to do with the origins of the recording — Loren and crew are based in Eugene, Oregon — as with the easy, back-pocket singing style and lightly swinging support of the band. Gifted with a sometimes breathy, sometimes throaty and always gorgeous voice, comparisons to Norah Jones are unavoidable. I even hear a bit of Aaron Neville in the way Loren plays with the break in her voice, in particular on her pretty take of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain. It’s in these covers of newer standards and remakes of pop hits that the disc shines brightest, but Loren’s own songs fit in cozily with the classics and overall breeziness. The only time Heart First even comes close to what could be described as edgy is on the reharmonized All of Me, which cleverly blends tremolo guitar (William Seiji Marsh), malleted drums (Brian West) and a minor key for a Willie Nelson-goes-voodoo kind of vibe. Loren also occasionally unleashes a bit of French and Spanish to kick up the sex appeal a notch, but not so much to make you fall out of your hammock.

Julie Lamontagne
Justin Time JTR 8570-2

I’ve never been a big fan of the “crossover” — opera divas singing jazz; rock stars performing opera; classical artists playing Hendrix — ouch. To my ear, it usually hasn’t worked all that well (unless you’re Keith Jarrett playing Bach). So, it was with some trepidation that I approached pianist/composer Julie Lamontagne’s third and latest album, Opus Jazz.

Turns out I needn’t have been so trepidatious. Lamontagne’s efforts in “revisiting” favourite classical music pieces — “a meeting between the jazz world I currently inhabit and the classical repertoire of my youth” as she explains in her liner notes — have proved, by and large, quite successful in this CD of music for solo piano.

With an early and firm grounding in classical music, Lamontagne ultimately went on to study with Fred Hersh in New York in 2000. (Truthfully, that’s what made me look twice at the CD. I mean, the sublime Fred Hersh, for heaven’s sake — the jazz pianist’s jazz pianist, and exceptional composer.) According to Lamontagne, Hersh encouraged her “to learn the works of Brahms in order to make the connection between jazz and classical.”

Given Lamontagne’s well-executed “adaptations” of works by Fauré, Chopin, Bach, Debussy and Brahms, among others, it seems she paid close attention to the teacher; her Brahms/Hersh-inspired Waltz for Fred does him (Hersh) justice. Bach’s Prelude No.1 in C Major (WTC Book I) is given a fluid and beautiful treatment on track three. And in Chopineries, Lamontagne takes us on a brief, though mellifluous and moving, tour of a Chopin nocturne (Op. posth.72 No.1), ballade (No.1 Op.23) and waltz (No.1 Op.18).

Lamontagne is an accomplished and creative musician, no — uh, make that “yes” — two ways about it.

05_Ori_DaganLess Than Three
Ori Dagan
ScatCat Records ODCD02

In the follow up to his well-received 2009 debut, S’Cat Got My Tongue, Israeli-born Toronto jazz vocalist Ori Dagan has imbued his latest recording with a healthy dose of intriguing material, cool musical sophistication and superb musicianship. The title, Less Than Three, refers to the online symbol of a heart — illustrating Dagan’s theme of “love” in its many guises.

Recently named “Canada’s Next Top Crooner” by CBC Radio, Dagan’s rich and sonorous baritone plumbs a depth of feeling above and beyond what his title would indicate. The CD boasts a line-up of gifted musicians, notably the Bill Evans-influenced pianist Mark Kieswetter and recent Order of Canada recipient, the luminous Jane Bunnett on soprano sax. All of the impressive arrangements are by Dagan and Kieswetter, including eclectic takes on tunes from Madonna, Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lady Gaga, as well as two original compositions — the entertaining and witty Googleable, and a moving ode to peace, Nu Az Ma?, sumptuously rendered in his native Hebrew.

Noteworthy is a rhythmic and wickedly sensual version of Madonna’s disco-era hit Lucky Star, as well as Eretz Zavat Chalav — sung with energy and authenticity (as only a “Sabra” can) and elevated to a thrilling level by Jane Bunnett’s stirring improvisations. Other tasty tracks include a scat-o-riffic roller coaster ride on Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and a pure and elegant rendering of Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s first big hit, Your Song. No doubt there will be many more treats in store down the line from this talented and inventive vocalist.

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