An unlikely quartet of pianists to share the same box set, Joachim Kuhn, George Gruntz, Kevin Hays, and Ramon Valle contribute one solo CD apiece, each of them standing up as an individual work. But as it turns out, each of them also complements and is enhanced by its close proximity to the others. The Piano Works box set may or may not be a device inspired by marketing (all the CDs are available as separate items, including the fifth, a sampler featuring twelve different artists), but their sum listening pleasure is measurably greater than its parts. That's the beauty of diversity.
George Gruntz, the septuagenarian director of the Swiss-based Concert Jazz Band for over thirty yearshere, remarkably, with his first solo albumdraws from every major piano style since Harlem stride (not a bad bedrock on which to build, as other artists, including Thelonious Monk, have demonstrated) into an arms fully extended, and frequently flailing, unforced, artifice-free unity. Joachim Kuhn, who knows his way round the block too (he covers John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," heartachingly, and two abtrusely titled Ornette Coleman tunes), has at least one foot in an even more distant past: the first half hour of Allegro Vivace is devoted to compositions by Couperin, Bach, and Mozart. The younger Kevin Hays and Ramon Valle have relatively narrower focusesin the Cuban born/Dutch resident Valle, a substantially narrower onebut they too reflect times and cultures beyond their native presents.
Kuhn's Allegro Vivace and Gruntz's Ringing The Luminator are the most consistently satisfying individual albumsthe first a celebration of improvisation from the Baroque age to the present; the second an attempt, perhaps a subconscious one, to bring a big band arranging sensibility to the lone keyboard, most of the time successfully. Hays at times veers dangerously close to New Age. He quite frequently, and quite irritatingly, layers his own multitracked voice and/or Fender Rhodes on top of the acoustic instrument. But the Native American-inspired "Humming Bird Song," which simultaneously evokes Beijing Opera, and sonically arresting "Harmonium," shaped by Hays's inventive use of dampened strings, are amongst several quietly exciting tracks. Valle's velvet meditations on the work of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) do tend towards the samey over an entire CD (Lecuona's and Valle's tunes alternate throughout), but in smaller chunks they are caressingly beautiful.
There are some gems on the sampler too: in particular Leszek Mozdzer's brilliant and enthralling "Sanctus," in which the piano is transformed first into a West African kora, and second into a harpsichord. Diversity rules throughout.
Personnel: CD1: Bugge Wesseltoft; Joachim Kuhn; Michael Wollny; Brad Mehldau; Esbjorn Svensson;
Leszek Morzdzer; Richie Beirach; George Gruntz; Kevin Hays; Ramon Valle; Jens Thomas;
Eric Watson. CD2: Joachim Kuhn. CD3: George Gruntz. CD4: Kevin Hays. CD5: Ramon