Purely Piano


Mid September’s 2002 Verizon Music Festival—note the absence of the J-word—offered little to the J-audience beyond McCoy Tyner and Tony Bennett, at least in the big halls. But a week of solo piano recitals at the Jazz Standard filled me with more optimism about the J-future than anything else this year. Though dramatically different from each other, three pianists born in the ’70s indicated a united front in their unconventional approaches, filtering of influences, and involvement with the music of their time. Each devised an emphatic solo style—a purely pianistic music, as opposed to a trio music without the trio. Several times I wondered whether Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran were playing jazz at all, but I never really cared. All of this was no less true of 41-year-old Matthew Shipp, who I will catch up with when Equilibrium is released in January. I assume it was also true of 47-year-old Fred Hersch (who I missed), knowing his intermingling of jazz and classical techniques. But I doubt that Hersch accessed one ingredient connecting the other four, especially in their new or imminent albums: hip-hop beats.

It was just a matter of time. For more than a decade, jazz musicians seeking concord with contemporary pop hired rappers, who sometimes rapped about jazz, as if that would make their intrusions more palatable. The answer was as close as Miles Davis, who knew to cherchez the rhythm. Jazz musicians who know hip-hop or grunge as part of the wallpaper of their youths are neither intimidated by nor contemptuous of it. They follow a key principle of jazz aesthetics in stealing anything that works (“Jazz is an octopus,” Dexter Gordon said), which is different from mixed drinks that dilute both factors. When Herbie Hancock, a pioneer of monotonous fusion and electronic beats, argued for the acceptance of “new standards” (rock tunes), he had to superimpose harmonic patterns to make them playable—he might as well have stayed with Tin Pan Alley. The borrowings of the under-30s are so natural that you may not notice them unless signposts are erected: No one can miss the dubbed beats in Moran’s version of Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet Rock,” but until I checked the sleeve I had no idea that the wildly effective fifth track of Iverson’s The Bad Plus is a Nirvana cover.

Iverson, with shaved head and goatee, looks like a cross between Pete Fountain and Dr. Cyclops, and the latter’s influence is the more prominent—in the microscopic attention to melody, the bombastic bursts of Lisztian fury, the patiently unpredictable bemusement while studying his captured song morsels. At the Jazz Standard, he opened with what might have been a John Ford soundtrack, the right hand picking “My Darlin’ Clementine,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Red River Valley,” while the left erected conflicting waves of dissonance or bounding ornamentation or a resolute ostinato, much of it foot-pedaled (the right pedal got a fierce workout all week). His control and plangent attack made the instrument roar, though an occasional stiffness grounded him. He lightened up on standards, including a whirlwind “All the Things You Are” cadenza, but he never relaxed for long, preferring to shake the rafters like the bells of Notre Dame.

The Bad Plus is a cooperative with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, and no one will confuse it with an orthodox piano trio. The CD (on Fresh Sound) boasts an unmistakable jazz pedigree, but it also rocks, and even when they play theme and variations, they keep the theme in view, playing at and around it, never discarding melody or the equilateral rapport that gives the group its intensity. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a highlight, the chorus cued by a mad Cubano glissando in an arrangement that alternates permutations on the song’s two themes, while the dynamic King steamrolls the beat, caroming into his marks. Abba’s hopeless “Knowing Me Knowing You,” however, a sorry opener for a good album, reminds us that jazzing pop can be as coy as jazzing the classics, and no amount of dissonance or artillery throttles the banality. Similarly, on “Blue Moon,” the trio can’t decide whether it likes the tune or wants to humiliate it. Yet the five originals close the sale. “The Breakout” begins and ends stormily and envelops a ripe ballad by Anderson; and Iverson’s “Labyrinth” gets under way with a five-beat thumping, before flowering as a concise meditation spurred by the natural momentum of inverted harmonies. One can imagine a jazz-to-grunge reversal here, a rock band laying claim to the piece—not that there’s any need.

Vijay Iyer opened his Jazz Standard set with an elbow to the bass clef, followed by a dark drone balancing a light single-note tune and belling treble chords, sustaining a rhythmic pulse without giving into foursquare swing. An airless romanticism blanketed his original pieces and one by Steve Coleman, but gave way to a stirring triptych of Ellington’s “Le Sucrier Velours,” Monk’s “Epistrophy,” and a Cecil-like barrage engineered around Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe.” He is a stirring player who shares Iverson’s penchant for fat chords and pedaled volume but compels attention with long, confident phrases that race around the keyboard and avoid the usual stops. He, too, is involved in a cooperative: Fieldwork, with tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and another raging drummer, Elliot Humberto Kavee, whose rumble brings Your Life Flashes (Pi) to instant life. Iyer wrote most of the music, but the pieces take their final form through interactive serendipity. There’s so much going on, you never miss the bass. And rarely does anyone lay out for more than a few bars—this is all trio, all the time. In one passage, Iyer plays static chords in the extreme registers of the keyboard, and the effect is as if he’s dropped out to favor a tenor-drums passage; he returns by claiming the middle register. Stewart’s warm sound, reminiscent of Dewey Redman, adds to the flow and intimacy. Only “The Inner World,” one of two slow and moody pieces, derives conspicuously from generic ’70s jazz; “Mosaic” alights with hip-hop accents. Most of the pieces are terse, spellbinding miniatures that never stand still.

In addition to being close in age and crossing their conservatory techniques with pop fancies, Iverson, Iyer, and Moran reflect the influence of pianists overlooked in the ’60s and ’70s, when every keyboard player seemed under the sway or Evans, Tyner, or Taylor, or, later, Hancock, Corea, or Jarrett. Now we keep hearing talk of and works by Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams, plus the earlier stride hierarchy, not to mention Ellington, whose The Queen’s Suite evidently has a special resonance. Jason Moran’s selection from it at the Jazz Standard was “Sunset and the Mocking Bird,” during a set that never completely abandoned a jazz groove, or a sanguine originality, even as he employed such devices as Horace Silver vamps, Monk dissonances, and partying stride; on the autobiographical “Gentle Shifts South,” he added taped family voices. He doesn’t use the tape for the version on Modernistic (Blue Note), but he has enough other rabbits in his hat. Indeed, this is one of the most rigorously unpredictable and rewarding solo piano albums in years.

Moran takes liberties, and the album has something to please or offend everyone. Consider four of the pieces he didn’t write. The album title derives from James P. Johnson’s 1930 recording, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” which the composer played at tremendous velocity, as a succession of 16-bar strains. Johnson is one of the founders of a jazz piano style that goes beyond Harlem; it hews to melodic embellishments, something the players in the Jazz Standard series appreciate. They are as free as they want to be, yet incline toward a variational fidelity. Thus Moran polished Johnson’s key theme even as he opened it up after each four-bar section with echoes of the last-played phrase, giving his reading an asymmetrical impulsiveness, with starts and stops, despite the stride underpinning. His “Body and Soul” may be the only genuinely new attack since Sarah Vaughan’s 1978 duet with Ray Brown, which begins with the bridge. Working exclusively with the song’s first melodic idea, Moran never plays the bridge at all. And so sure is he in working and reworking the hook, tied to an ostinato, that you don’t mind its absence. Near the end, he suddenly erupts with a full-bore arpeggio; in that one gesture, he lets you know how much piano history he commands.

On “Planet Rock,” Moran uses dubs and reversed tape—it’s a different planet than Bill Evans’s Conversations With Myself—to set up the melody, which he interprets almost as an anthemic lullaby, a radio tune stuck in your head. As an addendum, he adds a two-minute pensée on a beat he contrived for the arrangement. Covering all bases, he essays Schumann’s “Auf einer Burg,” from the second Liederkreis cycle, as a popular song—two 18-bar episodes with a four-bar transition. Moran plays the simple tune with a solemn loveliness, adding subtle variations in the harmony, which becomes a kind of chord progression for his second chorus. At that point he embellishes the theme with rhythmic interest, yet never breaks the spell. He follows it with “Gentle Shifts South,” and in this context his own melody emerges as an inversion of Schumann’s, sustaining its lyrical mood. Modernistic is a remarkable album.

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