Casual Bombast on Piano and Drums

Paul F. Murphy and Larry WillisExposé (Murphy Records, 2008)

murphy-exposeI know Paul Murphy’s drumming through his work with saxophonists Jimmy Lyons and Glenn Spearman. I remember the aptly named Trio Hurricane, with Spearman, Murphy, and bassist William Parker bringing heavy thunder.

Exposé is now more than a decade old, but when it showed up on eMusic’s “recent additions” list, Murphy’s name caught my eye. I didn’t know what to expect from him in a duo setting, especially paired with a piano, although he’s apparently recorded with Larry Willis multiple times. Exposé presents powerhouse drumming from a subtler angle — lots of tapping cymbals and feathery tom rolls on the solo track “Labyrinth,” for example. Willis brings the crystalline sounds of jazzy piano, but in an edgier vein than cocktail music, with the right improvisational spirit to keep the session outward-facing.

The title track starts slowly with what might be a nod to Cecil Taylor — not in terms of torrential playing but in the kinds of harmonies Taylor composed with. From there, Willis goes more lush and bright, weaving through jazz idioms while Murphy keeps up a continuous rustle, busy but not overwhelming.

The phrase “Liquid Dance” makes for an excellent track title. Murphy keeps up a busy, almost relentless patter but at a low volume, while Willis applies the right restrained, contemplative splashing to fit the name.

Some contemporary mainstream jazz leans in this direction. I’m thinking of labels like Origin Records — pleasing to the ear, but striving to create something new out of familiar cloth. This session wouldn’t be out of place there. Murphy fills space in a way that might be off-putting to some listeners, but I came here for the drums, so I’m happy to focus on the robust energy more than the relaxing moments.

Tania Chen and Feldman and Cage

Tania Chen, Wobbly, and Thomas Dimuzio will perform Triadic Memories at The Lab (2948 16th St., San Francisco) on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Tania Chen and Jon LeideckerMorton Feldman: Triadic Memories (Knitted, 2018)

Tania Chen (with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leidecker)John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano (Omnivore, 2018)

feldman score

Tania Chen champions the piano music from the quadrant of Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, and John Cage. It was one of her John Cage albums that inspired me to start writing something here. But then I found out Chen is going to be performing Morton Feldman’s 90-minute “Triadic Memories” with real-time electronics responses provided by Wobbly (Jon Leidecker) and Thomas Dimuzio. So I took a detour to hear her 2018 recording of the solo piano piece.

The composition is what you’d expect from late Feldman: lingering, drifting phrases, more relaxing than ominous, organized in delicate, spacious rhythmic doodles, and while you can run the piece as comforting background noise, you can also use the stillness to focus yourself into the moment, clinging to the notes and phrases against the deep silence. It’s also an interesting exercise in perception. The piece consists of arpeggios that spell out dissonant, prickly chords, but the melting-ice pace turns them into sparkling gems.

The added electronics are based on what’s coming out of the piano — Leidecker presumably attached microphones to the instrument, as he and Dimuzio will do in the Jan. 16 performance. On the CD, electronics appear sparingly, trying to accent the sound without being distracting. A passage starting around 17:20 includes a deep-water aftereffect. Another at around the 26-minute mark is more overt and mischievous but still doesn’t upset the overhanging atmosphere.

But that’s not really what I sat down to write about. I wanted to write about John Cage.

Chen-Electronic-Music-For-Piano-OV-262As you’d expect from a Cage piece, there’s a game aspect and a touch of whimsy behind Electronic Music for Piano, and I think it’s more enjoyable if you listen knowing the rules. Producer Gino Robair recorded Chen performing the piece three times — in separate duets with Toop and Moore in London, and with Leidecker in Berkeley. The CD knits the performances together with help from a “chance-based system” deciding which sound sources would play at which times.

“Sound sources” seems to include not just the six players (counting Chen three times) but also multiple angles, as microphones were all over the place — under the piano soundboard or at different points in the room, all to capture the mix of sounds persisting in air. Pure silence counted as a source and was weighted into the system, as were special options for “piano tracks only” and “non-piano tracks only.”

The overall mood is a fuzzy darkness: Lots of buzzing and roaring (not just Thurston Moore, but also the amplified piano soundboard), alternating with plinks and plucks from the piano, alternating with thick silence.

chen cage silences

About the silence — you don’t put on a John Cage record if you can’t tolerate silence, and this one delivers, with slabs of blankness lasting one to three minutes. “Silence” also factored into the original performances. One silence at around the 8-minute mark is broken by the tiniest flicker of piano strings, almost accidental. That, and the organic way in which the piano sound returns, suggest this was “organic” silence — a very quiet moment that really did happen in the studio.

That said, Thurston Moore’s roar tends to dictate the tone at any given moment — especially in the early minutes, where he’s either ON or off. Much as I enjoyed the chance aspect of the recording, I have to admit it creates jarring results, especially when the guitar kicks in or out. Take the excerpt below, for instance. In the spirit of the recording, I’m starting it at exactly the 15-minute mark, and it includes two silences of roughly one minute apiece.

Fujii Alone

Satoko FujiiInvisible Hand (Cortez Sound, 2017)

invisible-hand-solo-cd-coverSolo albums aren’t the norm for Satoko Fujii. She’s released four of them since 1996; compare that with her total of 79 albums plus the seven she plans to release this year. As you can tell from her work in small ensembles, Fujii is not to be trifled with, and you get to hear her in full force on the new double CD, Invisible Hand.

Being the only musician on the album, Fujii is, by definition, in command here — but the sure-handedness of these pieces lets you know she is in command. On most tracks, Fujii picks a theme — often one of the familiar compass directions related to jazz or classical — and explores it with conviction, adding deviations when the moment is right.

The stylistic palette is wide. “I Know You Don’t Know” is big, stern, and serious, like a classical piece, while “Gen Himmel” is a big-hearted gospel treat with waves of emotion. “Floating” blossoms into attractive, new-agey melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1980s ECM album; I’m making it sound corny, but I’m really enjoying that track.

One of my favorites is “Green Cab,” which surprises you by springing into a fun, rolling blues groove.

Fujii doesn’t abandon her association with free jazz; these pieces do come with avant-garde touches. “Green Cab” opens with zither-like sweeps of the piano strings and the tight clicking of prepared piano. “Floating” opens with prepared piano, too — a percussion solo of contemplative wind chimes.

At the far end of the spectrum is the title track, built around the sounds of Fujii directly manipulating the strings: subtle buzzing, sparse clicking. It’s a spacious, contemplative exercise, and when Fujii eventually shifts into conventional playing, it’s slow and serious.

Invisible Hand is notable not only for the span of Fujii’s styles but for its bold style and sure-handed statements. Its style sets up an intriguing contrast to another excellent solo piano album, Matt Mitchell’s førage, which I’ll be reviewing next.

Ron Stabinsky Stands Alone

Ron StabinskyFree for One (Hot Cup, 2016)

stabinsky-freefor-cropThe newest Mostly Other People Do the Killing record was notable for the new voice of Ron Stabinsky on piano. (He was also on Blue, their Kind of Blue reproduction.)

Now you get to hear his piano stand out on its own, and it’s pretty serious stuff. This is stream-of-consciousness improv that skirts the borderlines of jazz tradition and modern-classical form, so styles and moods vary within each piece. But a few tendencies surface, among them, a love of the low registers — even some of the playful tracks get that shadow of gravitas thrown over them — and a willingness to play with thick, throttling chords; the harmonies wobble in and out of traditional “jazz” sounds.

As an example: “Rapture” darts and pokes, a dancing piece that doesn’t settle on one melody or rhythm for long. It’s fun and agile, but it’s also got some heft to it:

Stabinsky is a storyteller, improvising with a big-picture approach that has the gears always turning, looking for the next idea or transition. With the exception of a couple of miniatures, Free for One isn’t about being fast and flashy.

“Viral Infection” starts with an air of a jaunty swing, then falls apart into a span of calmer energy, with quick-fingered single notes on the right hand and some comping chords on the left. “Once, but Again” takes a more lyrical, lush path. Jump into the middle, and you might assume you’re in the soloing part of a standard ballad.

One listening strategy would be to just savor the sound of the piano. Ideas develop and mutate, without many straight lines to follow. As with many solo outings, it’s an intriguing glimpse into a musician’s internal dialogue.

You can also get a taste of Stabinsky’s solo-piano work by viewing some live improvisations he posted years ago, in the age of Flip cameras. Appropriately enough for his new band, his YouTube user name is RonStab.

Discovering Charles Wuorinen

A bit of advice on Twitter last night from the ever-wise Ethan Iverson:

I think I’ve heard of Wuornin. Sure, what the heck.

A YouTube search directs me to a New York chamber outfit called Decoda.

Hey, that’s pretty cool. I like the pulsing feel. I have to admit, there are parts where the conga drums don’t feel like they “fit,” as if they’re just in there for the randomness of writing a piece for conga drums.

“Blue Bamboula” turns out to be a driven, bouncy piano piece with some rapid-fire quietude toward the end. There’s a partial version on YouTube with an image of adorable kittens, but I’d rather post a full version. This performance is by Molly Morkoski.

It’s always nice, and sadly kind of novel, to indulge in the music of a living composer. Iverson quickly corrected his tweet by noting Wuorinen is 78, not 79, but that doesn’t matter — it was still a good tip.

Jim Black and the Piano

Jim Black TrioSomatic (Winter & Winter, 2011)

It’s very hard not to draw comparisons to Paul Motian during “Tahre,” the opening track on drummer Jim Black‘s first piano trio album. While the piano and bass set up a rhythm, Black is busy on airy brushwork and small, precise cymbal taps. It’s busier than a Motian landscape, but it’s got the same gossamer feeling, that same disconnected sense of rhythm.

At first, I figured Motian’s relatively recent passing was just on my mind. (See Motian Studies.) But no — while “Tahre” eventually gets into a more defined beat, driven by some signature Black cymbal crashes, I do think he’s channeling a bit of Motian on most of the track.

It’s a departure for Black, whose drumming in most contexts is rollicking, explosive, and several leagues removed from traditional jazz drumming. His Alas No Axis band is arguably closer to indie rock than jazz. (See Houseplant Arriveth.) Those elements are still present on Somatic. It’s just that the piano trio format opens new directions for Black to try, and that’s a good thing.

The album consists of 10 Black compositions, and that indie-rock element is definitely present. “Hestbak” has the kind of hummable melody you’d find on an Alas No Axis album, played in comforting piano notes, and “Chibi Jones” is a slow and very pretty tune. “Terrotow” comes closer to Vince Guaraldi-style piano jazz, with a gentle, pattering theme backed by Black’s beat, quietly splashed out with lots of cymbals.

Austrian pianist Elias Stemseder is quite a find, and apparently quite young (20 or 21 at this writing). He’s got a patient, flowing way with the piano, working lovely solos out of Black’s quilted harmonies, yet leaving plenty of space for the bass and drums to share. Thomas Morgan is apparently one of the most in-demand bassists in New York these days. In fact, he’s got another piano-trio gig, with Craig Taborn, and he’s recorded in the piano trios of Masabumi Kikuchi and Dan Tepfer. He does other things too, like being in Steve Coleman’s band, but he’s certainly got the piano trio thing down.

Somatic sticks to a mostly comforting mood. Black doesn’t rock out much, and it’s interesting to hear him in this new context. Of the other tracks that stood out for me, “Somatic” is quite pretty and has the calm flow of a traditional piano trio. But “Protection” is more experimental, with spiky piano and poking bass. On that one, Black gives himself more leeway to rattle and wander on the drums; it’s a very Jim Black sound.

A New Type of Piano Piece

Joe Lasqo performs Weds., Jan. 11, at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco.

Joe Lasqo — Turquoise Sessions (Edgetone, 2011)

Joe Lasqo’s Turquoise Sessions album consists of ragas and similarly long-form Asian music, realized on the piano. He stirs some blue notes and soulful jazz into the slow-brewing mix, as well as some modern-classical ideas. It’s sometimes contemplative but certainly not static.

That’s not his only trick. At his show Wednesday night, he’ll be displaying some very intellectual-sounding piano work and some laptop experimentation as well. “Deconstruction/resynthesis of Miles Davis and cool jazz via linguistic theory & finite state machines,” one part of the bill reads. Things like that.

I’ll let him tell it himself, as he’s got a blog entry that pretty well describes his plan for Wednesday’s show. He’ll play some laptop along with his piano and will show off a new raga he’s been performing.

As for the ragas and “Neo-Gaku” songs on Turquoise Sessions, they’ve got their relaxing side but (like traditional ragas) reward long spans of attention. You can get wrapped up in these pieces, and the jazzy twists in the two ragas add some welcome spice.

The longest piece, at 25 minutes, is “Enteraku in Mode Hyo.” I have to admit, I was wondering if it would be 25 minutes of wandering in the desert, but it turns out to have lots of listener footholds, especially a repeating, ladder-climbing motif of high notes that feels very placidly Japanese. It’s also got occasional chordal washes that resemble the strumming of a koto or harp.

Often, you hear about classical or world influences on someone’s music, and they’re not quite evident. This is the real thing; Lasqo, who’s studied Indian classical music, is toying with new forms of the piano “piece.”