Billy Test: Solo Piano at The Kitano

Daniel Lehner By

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Billy Test Solo
The Kitano
New York, NY
March 13, 2012

Solo piano is a format that acts as a statement of achievement as much as it is a stylistic choice. It's not a venture for the half-hearted; solo piano concerts are typically conducted by longstanding luminaries like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. However, for Billy Test, it's a task that the young Pennsylvania-born pianist has already shown remarkable proficiency in doing. Test honed his chops in academic and live settings, studying at William Paterson University with piano masters like Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern and Armen Donelian, and playing all over the New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware scenes with artists like Bill Goodwin, Steve LaSpina and Linda May Han Oh. Now a Jersey City resident still under rigorous tutelage through diverse teachers like Fred Hersch, Marc Mommaas and famed classical instructor Sophia Rosoff—piano teacher to Hersch, Ethan Iverson, Aaron Parks, Barry Harris and many more—Test has taken on the challenge of letting his musicianship speak for itself at the Kitano's Young Pianist showcase for a month-long engagement.

Test's three-set performance wasn't just an example of what he was capable of doing, but a reminder of what the solo piano format is capable of achieving. Within the first tune, he was already exhibiting tried-and-true executions of moving block chords, skating lines, dissonant clusters and flashes of pianistic brilliance. Test's classical influence was not a means to a technical end but an active participant in his improvisations. Many of his bass lines moved with a sharp, contrapuntal quality; in his interpretation of George Shearing's "Conception," one chorus had him setting up a moving pas de deux between his right and left hand, the lines starting close and then drifting further and further apart. With some of his untitled originals, he also captured the format's prevalence towards delicate color and lyricism with tunes that combined Chopin-like mournfulness and Debussy-like color. Not to be too wrapped up in too much intellectualism, Test also showed bluesy and hard-bop sensibilities with powerful hits and stride-style piano twinkles.

One of the constant elements throughout his performance was its collection of Thelonious Monk tunes. Test managed to keep all of them sounding as fresh and alive as possible, bringing out both the letter and spirit of Monk's compositions. Test fragmented the melody of Monk's "Ask Me Now" by placing each eighth-note at random intervals on the piano and the bass notes of "Straight No Chaser" warped the harmony into new territory. He also permeated the melody to "Think of One" over his solo choruses, a common element of Monk's comping during his career. Of all of jazz's composers, Test's musings on Monk were apropos, allowing him to capture all the quirk and beauty of Monk's famous pieces.

In spite his young age, Test has chosen to be a part-time gatekeeper of semi-obscure standards that other pianists might have passed by. His renditions of Green/Comden's "Lucky to be Me" and Jerome Kern's "Nobody Else But Me" were touched with a healthy respect of their melodies and inherent romanticism but also given some modernistic kicks. Alec Wilder and Morty Palitz's "While We're Young" started out with affectionate echoes of the melody in the upper register before he ran into fleet bebop lines that coalesced into extended polyrhythms. Test gave a unique, introspective look into Leonard Bernstein's increasingly standardized "Somewhere" with wistful, oblique intro that vacillated between charm and dramatic serialism, but kept the enduring strains of the melody present at all times, even during his solos.

Without the support of bass or percussion, to be rhythmically and/or harmonically inventive in the solo piano requires confidence, but with Test at the helm, it was an outright statement of bravery. Test adhered to polyrhythms with such determination that the "true" meter didn't surface for sections at a time. During his own "Samba do Choro" (a contrafact of another old standard, "This Heart of Mine"), he was challenged to keep the Brazilian rhythms without the help of percussion. Not only did he succeed, but also didn't lose any of "himself" either, keeping all of the long bop lines and crunchy intervals in tow. His harmonic concept was even more adventurous. His blues selections got heavy doses of what went beyond "outside playing" and into the realms of "live reharmonization." Four bars of his solo on his own "Blues for Farnham" even channeled a little Cecil Taylor, an atonal fever pitch that swung around back to center. Not every invention was bombastic either. His decision to keep a pedal tone under one of his choruses on "It Could Happen to You" moved the harmony sideways, neither making it more dissonant, nor keeping it entirely the same either.

Above all else, Test was absolutely committed in pushing himself further and further within the context of his own performance. His use of the extreme registers of the piano was a testament to his touch; he transformed what are usually annoyingly metallic high notes into music box tines and groaning low notes into true bass counterpoint. Harmony-wise, "Speak Low" in particular found the pianist extracting dizzying colors and textures from every angle, setting up patterns that seemed to defy time and harmony and reaching out from there. His constant push had another angle, however, as he also pushed himself to become more swinging. His blues selections, in particular, had the effect of reaching to a fever pitch, each 12 bars getting increasingly abstract until he switched gears and aimed for more bluesiness, more groove and more joyous bounce. It's rare to find a pianist whose growth can be traced over a few months; Test's musical growth was witnessed in a few hours. It's a positive thing to discover, because most musicians can give the assurance that they are already amazing. Billy Test, however, can give the cast-iron guarantee that by tomorrow, he'll be even better.

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