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Stephen Anderson: Forget Not

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Pianist Stephen Anderson is an exemplar of the scholar-musician. Although jazz education is an ever-growing field, it's rare to find someone who succeeds in both disciplines, as a player and an academic. Perhaps because jazz is so fundamentally founded on "feel," it leaves less space open for the rational or analytical. But at least some of the tracks on Forget Not, Anderson's first release as a bandleader, would suggest that maybe one can do it all.

From the very first notes of "Mobiles," the territory of this record is hardly standard jazz. The song's introduction is built on atonal harmony, with only the sheerest sense of blues in the pianist's left-hand lines. However, exploring harmonies so tangential to jazz yields a great payoff: when the trio comes in and Anderson lays down his first chords, there's a kind of warmth and reassurance that emanates from the piano, a comforting solidity.

This interplay of reassuring harmony and difficult experimentation comes from Anderson bridging a certain gap. While his technique is embedded in a swinging jazz articulation, he restrains himself from playing in too traditional an idiom. One look at his liner notes shows the broad spectrum of musical influences that informs his compositions: not just from Tin-Pan Alley to Art Tatum, but also from 15th-century French composer Philippe de Vitry to the electronic experimentalist Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Consequently, the songs on Forget Not have a structured complexity to them, which varies in its visibility. At certain moments, the music can sound like technical experimentation. Most often, though, the intellectual structures bounding Anderson's compositions are only a sideline to a pure, dynamic music. The pocket he plays in is precise and intense, whether he imposes alien forms onto his pieces or simply thwarts the expectations of rhythm and harmony.

There is no question of the beauty in Anderson's playing, however. The one standard presented on the album is William Best and Deek Watson's tune "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," which the trio performs with the utmost care and attention to the ballad's essence. Anderson plays the melody obliquely, but without losing any of its clarity. Jeff Eckels' tender bowing on the bass here adds romance without romanticism: this is a band that can treat a ballad beautifully, precisely because they never fall into the patterns of the expected or the saccharine.

In jazz, there's often a sensibility that if an idea or motif for a tune comes from the head rather than the heart, it's not really going to swing—nobody will feel it the same way they respond to the instinctual bluesy-ness of Bobby Timmons or Horace Silver, say. But Anderson's tunes, no matter the complexity of their conceptual foundations, remain firm, engaging and exciting. A musician of this erudition is certainly capable of bringing new and engaging ideas to jazz—especially if he experiments with larger ensembles in the future.

Track Listing: Mobiles; T'so Political; Antithesis; Moments of the Sublime; 'em and 'ems; For Sentimental Reasons; Understated; Forget Not.

Personnel: Stephen Anderson: piano; Jeff Eckels: bass; Joel Fountain: drums.

Title: Forget Not | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Summit Records

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