Curtis Clark, Connie Crothers, and Joe Bonner: Exploring the World of Piano in Northampton, MA
Of the three pianists, Connie Crothers was the only performer to not bring a written plan to the piano. Her plan unfolded as she played. Nothing about Crothers, though, was uncertain. She took hold of the environment, the audience, the location, the local history, and shaped her program in response to it. She decided that the first piece would be a tribute to Max Roach, who had lived nearby in Amherst when he taught at UMass, and with whom she had toured many years earlier.
Her playing did not imitate Max Roach's rapid-fire snare and dry hi-hatted approach towards the drums. Rather her tribute reflected a map of how he inspired her. Without melody, her flat-handed splats on the keys from the treble to the bass drew the starting line for the wide-angled action to come. The notes and chords to follow became the tools with which she built an unpredictably strong foundation of persistent resonance. The tempo established itself and then changed as the notes multiplied. Her right hand traveled more than her left, which stayed on the bass keys to keep the rhythm. Occasionally her left hand tore itself out of the bass pocket to follow the right into a fingering flurry up the keyboard. But it was not long before, as if magnetized, her left hand made a beeline to the bass keys, leaving the high register at the mercy of diligent, purposeful fluttering. At no point was she playing in the center of the keyboard. The expressive adamancy of her wide embrace of the keyboard lifted her body off the piano bench, her hands dropping from the keys, which still seemed to resonate from the force of her insistent two-handed chords. Not content, merely, with the instrument's response to her movements, her pianistic methods caused her own body to respond in kind with physical manifestations of the instrument's effect on her.
Crothers moved on to play the Robin-Rainger standard associated with Billie Holiday, "If I Should Lose You," and Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are," performed with no less intensity, no less unpredictability of intentions than any of the spontaneously improvised pieces that came before or after. Both tunes were assembled with chords harmonizing the melody, yet intricate fingering fostered a connective tissue while exerting a sparkling flare between familiar melody signposts. Soon, arpeggios and runs spiraled down the keys to dissemble the themes. If she occasionally ignored the rumble of the bass, it always returnedin the same way that the constant sonic vibrancy overrode discrete rushes of trills and tremolos. Her creations lay bare the extremes of the keyboard, which were available to her to the degree she searched them out, starting in a different place every time, taking a different approach every time. The parameters she established with one finger or her elbow paradoxically marked the boundlessness of her improvisations.
As she continued, delicate sonic notions altered the music in a piece she dedicated to Emily Dickinson. The ideas were the unconventional romantic ones that tell arresting stories, where the intervals between the notes are both wide and tight simultaneously. She wanted to dwell, to linger, in the blues, in a deceptively dream state of mind, but she strove for ecstasy. She erected a border between abstraction and melody the better to probe the question: how does one fabricate melody out of not necessarily a series of single notes and discrete pitches but rather a series of "meaningful" gestures as they combine within the context of the melody?
Her tribute to her mentor, Lennie Tristano, ended the concert. As she introduced the piece she chose to call "Lennie's Dream," she transmitted nothing but admiration. In the piano, this emotion translated to thematic concerns, simultaneously locked into the bass and launched in the treble. Blissfully integrated energetic hand and finger motions traveled from mid-keyboard out and then back in again. With a resurgence of two-handed bass ostinatos that progressed to mid-tones and then to repetitions of a melody, she constructed a melody of repetitions. All tuneful coherence that had amassed broke down. Then, as in the beginning, the sounds re- collected. And with her eyes closed and her head held high, notes sprang from the bass to the highest register. And she was done.
In the same manner after each piece, Crothers rose from the bench and turned to the audience, one hand resting on the piano. She looked a bit drained from her intense involvement with her work, but in a way that illuminated her face. She glowed from the satisfaction that her creative instincts had produced in her, to be kept secure until another day, another performance, another application of her unparalleled talent.