A quick perusal of Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner's website presents a musician whose projects are both typically and atypically diverse. Usually range demonstrates itself in working with a large pool of other musicians; Lerner certainly has that, whether it is with the long-standing Queen Mab to the two trios under discussion here. But she also cuts a wide swathe stylistically. Her website discography is split amongst Improvisation, Jazz, Classical, Jewish Music and Audio Art. None of these are affectations; her playing in any context is sincere and persuasive.
Arms Spread Wide is a new trio with the New York rhythm section of bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. All the music is freely improvised or perhaps, to borrow a term frequently over- and misused, spontaneously composed. The piano trio may be the most basic of all jazz ensembles, the most accessible in terms of melody, rhythm and harmony. But this straightforwardness belies the freedom such a simple format allows its component musicians. Is the piano a percussion instrument? Does the bass propel the melody? How do the drums color the proceedings? In the right hands (and two feet) the entire history of the art form known as jazz (a far more liberating appellation than the more popular 'creative improvised music') can be included, from Monk and Evans to Taylor and Bley. That this trio chooses to work in discrete tracks, ten in all with one specifically inspired by Coco Schulmann (a Jewish-German jazz guitarist who survived the Nazis), shows they are being methodical in their approach: don't try to do everything at once and you'll be sure not to forget anything.
The trio Ugly Beauties is obviously a Monk tribute band, right? Well, yes and no. When this reviewer saw the band at last summer's Vancouver International Jazz Festival, they did play a couple of his pieces. But for their eponymous debut recording, there are none, the music coming from the pen of each member or as duo or trio collaborations. And even Monk would be somewhat taken aback at the European-style openness of the playing though he would appreciate the brevity of the 15 tracks (55 minutes in total, with only one tune hefty at nine minutes). Fellow Canadians Matt Brubeck (cello) and Nick Fraser (drums) are the other two sides of the equilateral triangle and both have a breadth to their resumés that equals Lerner's. Thus Ugly Beauties may be a jazz record but one that is quite brash in revealing the layers of other musics integral to jazz' vitality. The spirit of Monk is far better served by a group that uses his individuality as inspiration rather than retreads his music for the 1000th time, though Ugly Beauties probably would do it better than most.
Tracks and Personnel
Arms Spread Wide
Tracks: Wild Analysis; Nightwings; The Eternal Present; The Dance Within The Game; Skies Spin Round; Hommage a' Coco Schulmann; Samphire; World of Shades; Arms Spread Wide; Skitterbug.
Personnel: Marilyn Lerner: piano; Ken Filiano: bass; Lou Grassi: drums, percussion.
Tracks: Windsor; Oubliette; Harold Lloyd; Minimalism; Faux Amis; Zoetrope; Wallflower; Ding an Sich; Be Done; Also; In a Hurry; Figure and Ground; Corde lisse; Tombé; Prémonition.
Personnel: Marilyn Lerner: piano; Matt Brubeck: cello; Nick Fraser: drums.
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