ECM: A Cultural Archeology
Often cited as an influence on singers like Norway's Sidsel Endresen, beyond the fact that Monk's material is composed as opposed to Endresen's current improvisational slant, it's also clear that their studies in extending the human voice beyond its conventional capabilities have taken them down completely different paths. Like Endresen, Monk has experimented with the concept of resonance, but has also worked with the idea of creating compositions where the singing amongst its participants is more akin to conversation than harmonizing.
Nowhere is this clearer than on her ECM debut, Dolmen Music (1981), from which she performed its first three pieces. "Gotham Lullaby," was for solo voice and piano. Still, as melodic as its base construct was, Monk's use of sound as languagedespite being a language that's not been heard beforehas clearly been a touchstone for Endresen's own distinctive vernacular and, in the same way, managed to evoke ideas and emotions despite being linguistically incomprehensible. Broad ululations and high pitched swirls defined her performance of "Travelling," a 5/4 piece that, like some of her other music, reflects her being a part of the same community that included minimalist composer Steve Reichas did "The Tale," where Monk shifted between laughter and her character looking to celebrate or, at least, assert her life's ongoing relevance: "I still have my hands; I still have my mind; I still have my money; I still have my telephone."
But throughout a show that felt more like informal living room performance than rigorous recital, the most moving moment came when Monk was joined by Geissinger, Lubimov and Rybakov for a closing performance of impermanence's "Between Song," with Monk and Geissinger trading lines as Lubimov delicately delivered the dark accompaniment, with Rybakov layering simple but evocative lines. The full house responded with rapturous applause, and while Monk, Geissinger, Lubimov and Rybakov took a number of curtain calls, there was no way Monk was going to get away without an encore, an a cappella solo piece that explored the myriad potential of something seemingly so simply: a whisper. But that brief final piece epitomized a lifelong career which has explored the intersection of the human voice and experience, and was the ideal ending to a perfect performance.
With the Demenga brothers unable to perform the following evening, the weight fell upon Lubimov and Rybakov to expand a program where, originally, Lubimov was to perform material from his recent Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM, 2012), and, in duo with Rybakov, the French composer's "Première Rhapsodie pour clarinette et piano."
And Lubimov did, indeed, perform material from the recording, in a solo recital that only served to strengthen impressions from his 2009 recital at the Enjoy Jazz Festival's ECM 40th anniversary celebration in Mannheim, Germany, where the pianist performed in a trio with Rybakov and violinist Alexander Trostiansky. The highlights of that performance were Lubimov's reading of Arvo Pärt's sublime "Für Alina," and his duo with Rybakov on the Estonian composer's arpeggio-driven "Spiegel in Spiegel," and it was this latter piece that the duo added to its München recital, in a set-closer that may actually have eclipsed the Mannheim rendition.
But if the two brought sublime tranquility to Pärt's composition, Lubimov's series of Debussy Préludes evoked even greater emotional resonance. A friend and contemporary of renegade composer Erik Satie, it's no surprise that, amidst the delicate lyricism of his Préludes, there were harmonic elements that somehow spoke of jazz in its nascency, and Lubimov captured those elements in definitive fashion. Debussy's Préludes are a standard part of the classical piano repertoire, just as Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and yet both Lubimov's recent recording of the Debussy and label mate/pianist András Schiff's recent four-disc set, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (ECM, 2012) prove that, just as the standard repertoire in jazz still has plenty of life and potential in the hands of artists like pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Lee Konitz and recently deceased drummer Paul Motian, so, too, do these classical staples possess something that, in the right hands, can continue to be approached and reinterpreted with fresh life and vitality.
Lubimov was as compelling to watch as he was to hear. The delicacy with which, at times, he approached his instrument was something to be experienced even more clearly in performance, where it was possible to see how his right hand gently crossed over his left to caress the lower register of his piano; his hands, at other times, seeming to almost float above his instrument, while still rendering greater power when needed.