Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sonic Explorations of the Soul

Dr. Lewis Porter is a musicologist, author, and educator who happens to be one fine pianist. Over the seven years, he has released several trio albums and a slew of duo performances.  His new recording, "Solo Piano" (Next To Silence LLC), is his first going it alone.  Since the good Doctor is a historian of jazz music, you won't surprised to find that the music on the album has a wide variety of influences including standards, originals, blues, and, of course,  jazz. Best of all, it often sounds as if Porter is having fun.  Listen to the original "Ragtime Dreams" - there is a bit of dissonance in the melody line reminiscent of Randy Newman. "Blues for Sunset", also an original, is a sweet meditation that moves on an "easy rollin'" left hand while the pianist digs dances and creates a solo with phrases that seem to dance in the air.

Photo: Ed Berger
Three of the pieces are "standards", starting with the opening exploration of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love."
The long playful solo goes through several styles while stand connected to the melody line throughout.  Porter paints quite a portrait on George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." There's an orchestral feel to the piano and an intelligent use of occasional silence.  Later in the program, Porter's take on "Body and Soul" is truly lovely. Sit back and let music fill your ears, listen to how articulate the pianist is (reminding this listener of Fred Hersch), and enjoy the ride.

Photo: Bill May
Other originals include the delightful and hypnotic "Mixolydia", the meditative yet expansive "Through the Sunset", and "For Eddie Harris."  The "...Harris" track is notable in its combination of short melodic phrases and an insistent rhythmic but notice how the piece threatens to break down in the middle yet never loses its way.

The album closes with a handsome version of John Coltrane's "Central Park West."  Here again, the pianist takes his time to create a fine story from the opening melody. There are moments when the piano lines take flight and others when it seems like the piano is sweetly singing. Actually, one could write that about many of the songs on "Solo Piano."  Lewis Porter certainly understands the power of melody, especially when combined with a strong, rhythmic, left hand. This collection is a delightful addition to his catalogue and deserves your attention.

For more information, go to www.lewisporter.com. (The album will be released on 3/29/18.)

Our house is quiet this mid-February morning with only the sounds of pianist Lucian Ban and clarinetist Alex Simu wafting through the rooms.  The duo's new Sunnyside album, "Free Fall", is inspired by and dedicated to Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008).  Giuffre, who played tenor saxophone and clarinet, graduated from North Texas Teachers College (now North Texas State University, one of the premier music schools in the USA) and went on to play with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and the Buddy Rich Band before joining Woody Herman's Thundering Herd. For Herman, he composed what may still be his most famous composition, "Four Brothers" (1949) which featured the tenor saxophones of Giuffre, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and the baritone saxophone of Serge Chaloff.  In the mid-1950s, Giuffre organized a drummer-less band with guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (replaced a year later by bassist Ralph Pena) and recorded the classic "Western Suite" Lp for Atlantic Records.  In the early 1960s, the reed master (who also played soprano and baritone saxes plus flute and bass flute) formed a new trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, moving into a "freer" sound.  Giuffre went on teach for several decades, all the while still recording even adding electronics to his groups.

For the Ban and Simu CD, recorded live in Bucharest, Romania, (both musicians are natives of the country) in February of 2018, the duo mixed original pieces with several improvisations (including the title track) plus a lovely version of Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria" and two pieces from Giuffre (both recorded with Bley and Swallow as was the Bley piece). Here, Ms. Bley's lovely ballad rolls in on a piano figure not unlike a piece by Erik Satie.  Simu moves lightly through the melody and creates a long, impressionistic, solo.  "Cry, Want", the first of the two Giuffre compositions that actually come at the end of the program, opens with an unaccompanied clarinet solo. One can hear the influence of the blues on the composer, even more so when Ban enters. The piece moves slowly and quietly with one really hearing the "cry" in Simu's phrases.  "Used To Be", the other Giuffre piece, has a livelier feel. The gospel sound in Ban's thick piano chords, reminiscent of Abdulah Ibrahim, creates a great cushion for Simu to explore the higher range of his instrument.

The album opens with the pianist's "Quiet Storm", setting the tone for the rest of the program. As the music moves forward, the duo opens up, their lines dancing in and around each other, never very loud but you almost see Ban and Simu watching each other anticipating the next moves.  The title track builds off a dark piano riff that slowly lightens up as the clarinet - then, they begin to really dig in challenging each other yet making sure to stay connected.  There's a similar feel to the other improvised work, "Mysteries." The piano creates a quiet riff while the clarinet plays long tones, even dissonant tones.  That dissonance is a foreshadowing of how the music will pick up in intensity and even move int "freer" territory.  Still, the duo never loses the connection to Ban's left hand, the quiet riff that is the glue of the music.

"Free Fall" demands your attention, doing so not by shouting in your ears but, most often, whispering into them.  Lucian Ban and Alex Simu are influenced not just by Jimmy Giuffre's music but also by the composer's desire to move beyond the cliches that often permeate music. Several of the pieces, especially the originals, are influenced by the blues, using that musical language as a touchstone for personal and duo explorations.  This music, the concert, and the resulting album is certainly an enjoyable listening experience.

For more information about these musicians, go to www.lucianban.com and www.alexsimu.nl.

No comments:

Post a Comment