Piano As Narrative: Thollem McDonas

Thollem McDonasGone Beyond Reason To Find One (Edgetone, 2010)

McDonas grew up in Santa Cruz and is now a citizen of the world, taking his piano playing on the road for long stretches at a time.

The albums I’ve heard previously have featured him on short short tracks — snippets of improvisation or composition, drawing from a classically jazz background but executed in a stream-of-consciousness patter, a wider wake than your typical jazz piano.

And then there have been albums like I’ll Meet You Halfway Out in the Middle of It All, where McDonas adds singing in a sardonic voice. The pieces are close to conventional songs (they’ve at least got a composed form that drummer Rick Rivera follows along with), but there’s still a spontaneity to them, with unexpected explosions of words or sudden drops into silence. And the piano forms, like the rapid-fire percussive opening to “I Know the Language,” veer hard off the jazz or classical routes.

Gone Beyond Reason is a chance to hear McDonas create long-form pieces. His piano leans more towards classical than jazz, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s classical classical.

“For All Those Presently Living” was improvised alongside a silent film by animator Martha Colburn, a performance that was part of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. (There’s a nice writeup of the performance on the CatSynth blog.)  It’s got a bombastic start and ending, with long periods of quiet in the middle, including some outright silences that can get distracting. I took them for periods when McDonas prepped/unprepped the piano, since there are some interesting passages with the strings muted by wood blocks or some other objects — but they might actually be responses to the film, spaces to let the visuals settle into the brain unaccompanied. Sylvano Bussotti did something similar in his performance the other night (see previous entry).

Of course, “For Those Who Have Gone Before” starts the opposite way: quiet, crystalline, a lyrical respect. That’s not necessarily planned; this track comes from a different performance, at Mills College.  Because it’s not tied to a video accompaniment, its structure makes more sense to the ears. Soon enough, it builds to an attractively busy burble and a jumble of low-register fluttering, tense and busy. By the end, he’s getting into jagged, enthusiastic rhythms, a dynamic sense of music jabbing at you from multiple directions, before coming in for a gentle landing.

The third track is a short encore of sorts. Titled “For All Those Yet To Come,” it features unflowery chords played in a flowery style — a flight over jagged terrain. It ends with what would be a classic-jazz concert-hall piano splash — it’s got that rhythm, but the chords are intentionally warped, for a big grand, paint-splatter of a finale.

McDonas has been prolific with albums in the past several years. Among his most recent is a duet with bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, where McDonas plays on the last piano owned by Debussy. (Yes, the Claude Debussy, not some Buddy Debussy who runs the auto shop across town.) Every entry from him seems different, and you certainly wouldn’t peg Gone Beyond Reason as being from the same guy who did I’ll Meet You Halfway Out.

For that reason — and, yeah, because of this first name — McDonas has been an enigmatic character to me. But as you can see in this video, part 1 of 2, he’s just a nice guy who enjoys making music.

You can also find out more about McDonas in this Examiner.com article. (Warning: pop-under ads galore, but it’s worth the irritation.)