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Live Reviews

Curtis Clark, Connie Crothers, and Joe Bonner: Exploring the World of Piano in Northampton, MA

By Published: March 8, 2009

Joe Bonner

The character of Joe Bonner is built on the sizable influence of some big guns, since he was at one time picked as a band member by both Pharoah Sanders and Roy Haynes. Out of the tradition of accomplished instrumentalists and composers, he has risen like a musical engine that runs in perpetual overdrive. Dressed in a black tux, a ruffled shirt topped off with an oversized velvet bow tie, Bonner came to this concert to display his dynamic wares. He wove his repertoire of piano moves skillfully into standards, both familiar and not.

Teasing the keys in front of him with two hands, starting a bass ostinato before he propelled himself into fluid treble runs that conjured up falling tear drops, Bonner fingered phrases reaching over one hand to land bass chords with the other. The tempo was slow, but quickly changed as the melody of "How Long Has This Been Going On" shone through. Bonner began to improvise on the theme in a non-abstract, formalist way, attending to a multitude of means to intermix ornamenting and phrasing with primary theme. He displayed a veritable lexicon of piano stylizations in an outright defiance of monotony.

Yet everything was about the Gershwin melody: how well could he paint the thematic lyricism and how many times he could change the substance with which he was working as he spread his wings to fly or as he stayed in one place. Sometimes the piano sounded like a harp evoking the image of everything gossamer. At other times, the changes in key told his story, a narrative of the blues.

In general, Bonner's penchant for exaggeration demonstrated his versatility at the keyboard. Heavy bass chords gave birth to sparkling tremolos. Elegance and precision accompanied a huge range of hand motion that unified melody with improvisation. His physical movement rendered a seamless succession of notes from one end of the keyboard to the other, rapidly or gradually, singly or in repetitions or clusters. The melodies flowered in accordance with the directions in which they pointed. Swells of sound came out of nowhere in bass tremolos which were upended by rips up the keyboard from the center to the treble end. He leaned back to prepare for crashing into the keys, which he did several times to create an unrelenting resonance. Never once, did he sacrifice the tune he was working with: from the aforementioned Gershwin song to the pop period piece "Stranger In Paradise," from the Broadway musical "Kismet," to the theme from Peanuts to Barney Kessel's "Love Is For the Very Young." Yet he also comfortably incorporated other familiar melodies within the greater ones—to the point where he wound up playing medleys. The rhythmic elements were irrefutable amid the flurry.

Bonner could have played all night. The first two sets were separated by an intermission that lasted about five minutes. After bowing once, he returned, sat at the piano in the dark and just let loose. And then after many bows, and assorted manifestations of appreciation, he briefly disappeared into the dressing room—but came out once again for a third set! What the audience could have expected to be an hour or so of music became two hours—all filled with Bonner's personality and straightforward exhibition of love of the music.

This solo piano series gives its ever-growing audience a player-by-player glimpse into the realm of possibilities that lie in the playing of the instrument. Every player without doubt has the same tools in hand, devices learned through formal training or self-discovery. The difference among players, though, is stark, for each shapes what he or she knows at the very instant of concert time. How the pianist feels, what the pianist wants to say at that moment, sets the framework for sound which has never before been heard.

Photo Credit

Lyn Horton

Visit Curtis Clark on the web.

Visit Connie Crothers on the web.

Visit Joe Bonner on the web.

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