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Peter Beets: Chopin Meets the Blues

Greg Simmons By

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While a knowledge of romantic pianist Frederic Chopin (1810—1849) can add to the experience of listening to pianist Peter Beets' Chopin Meets the Blues , it is by no means essential to enjoying it. This is a jazz album first and foremost, and a very good one at that.

Beets uses Chopin's charts as a jumping off point, and does not constrain himself by the mood or tempo of the original music. The opener, "Nocturne in Eb Major, Opus 9 # 2," illuminates his willingness diverge from his source. Chopin's original is a down-tempo, highly expressive, if optimistic bit of music. Beets takes the tempo up to a medium pace, adds some blue progressions and returns a totally different piece of music. Bits of the original melody remain but they are now disguised, never standing out in high-relief. The track is reprised at an even faster tempo at the end of the album, with a swinging drum solo from Gregory Hutchinson that would rarely be found at Alice Tully Hall.

In the very next piece, the "Nocturne in F minor, Opus 55 #1," Beets changes gears and hews much closer to the original melody, turning the statement duties over to guitarist Joe Cohn. Again, the tempo is taken at a quick clip, and the band takes the opportunity for a good, straight-ahead workout.

In the classical world, "Prelude In E Minor, Opus 28 # 4," which is one of Chopin's most famous melodies, is treated with varying tempos from middle-slow to barely-a-pulse, depending on the pianist. What might the composer have thought to hear it opened with Reuben Rogers' fat bass vamp?

If it seems that tempo is a recurring theme here, it is. Most of the pieces inspiring this album are slow, often melancholy compositions. Beets is having none of that, consistently quickening the pace and making the tempos more noteworthy than they might be on another album.

Finally, this record compares well with other recent jazz interpretations of classical music. An album like the Classical Jazz Quartet Play Tchaikovsky (Kind of Blue, 2006) makes a point of staying close to recognizable melodies. By contrast, Beets does not shy away from using his source material only as a framework for invention, expansion and improvisation, meaning that in the end a knowledge of Chopin is not required.

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