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Piano in Solitude

Geno Thackara By

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There are people who play the piano, and then there are some who create a whole other state of consciousness with it. While these three may not be among the more common household names in the jazz world, here they each offer a master class in the craft to make you wonder just why the hell not.

Lewis Porter
Solo Piano
Next to Silence
2019

Bill Evans this ain't. There are some familiar titles in the course of this solo outing, and Lewis Porter is certainly capable of gently swinging and teasing out an accessible melody, but he can't resist pushing and stretching the form more than most. Brad Mehldau would probably be a closer (if still misleading) reference point. In the solo context he has the chance to slow, meander, stop and turn without the chance of any bandmates losing their places, and he takes advantage by drifting and adding flourishes whenever the mood hits. Rooted in classic jazz it may ultimately be, but the result is much more impressionistic than "Impressions"-istic.

The set is comprised of originals and standards alike, and Porter brings the same bold exploratory sensibility to both. It's not always easy to find a discernible pulse amid the frills, flourishes and staggered rhythmic hops, but the melodic heart of each piece is still lurking in there somewhere. "Ragtime Dream" leans closer to dream (and a weird one) than rag, gently flirting with bi-tonality before going for a full snog. "Body and Soul" and "Central Park West" get prodded into shapes that would have been nigh-unimaginable at their bop-era origins, while he even makes that distinct stamp on the most familiar form of the blues. Porter's whole performance here is like a single extended dream, off-the-wall odd in a strangely inviting way.

Joachim Kühn
Melodic Ornette Coleman: Piano Works XIII
ACT Music
2019

If the title Melodic Ornette Coleman sounds like an oxymoron, you might have simply not heard enough sides of Ornette Coleman. The legendary trumpeter always had a feel for melody all his own, whether it was readily obvious to the ears or not. Joachim Kuhn's own voice at the piano made a fit complementary enough that the two maintained a recurring series of duo performances spread over several years in the late nineties, each one featuring a new set of Coleman compositions written for the occasion and usually never played again. It's material shaped by both men's minds and voices, and Kühn's recital makes a set both familiar and unique.

Opening with a brisk yet subdued minor noir motif, the pianist makes the keys roll and sing with the semi-angularity that's kept his and Coleman's listeners challenged for decades. He defies the album's title in spots like "Lost Thoughts" or "Physical Chemistry," bouncing and ricocheting around the scale with brash abandon—though even then, there's a definite structure amid the chaos. The song sketches likewise provide channels to wander without regular beats or rhythms, while Kühn's trustworthy inner map reliably keeps him from getting lost.

It also leads him to a couple oases of beauty for the album's highlights, particularly the simple soul of "Tears That Cry" and the beautifully wistful "Somewhere." Kühn closes things out with his lone self-composed piece of the set, whose crazy twist-and-turn capering arguably channels Coleman's spirit most of all. If that seems a bit odd, no matter: the affair is fundamentally a blending of two incomparable performing voices, and it's a rich treat for open-eared fans of either.

Kenny Werner
The Space
Pirouet Records
2018

As someone or other once said, any fool can play something difficult. It's another order of skill entirely to find this level of beauty in simplicity, but Kenny Werner makes it sound as natural as breathing. This exquisite solo recital uses space as an essential building block (among some impressive others) to exquisite results.

The title refers to a state of oneness (a concept similar to the emptiness of nirvana, reductive as that description is), and Werner has just enough thoughtful restraint to take us all there if we're patient. He spends the first couple minutes scattering some stray notes sparsely as stars against blackness. Soon it's scattered with a little gypsy dust before drifting back to the quiet of after-hours (if not middle-of-night) solitude in a dim empty lounge. The title track as a whole is a simply masterful exercise in gorgeous understatement.

If the rest of The Space is more busy, it's every bit as elegant. A classic Keith Jarrett improvisation presented in spry springtime glory, dreamy melancholy, shades of non-schmaltzy romance as Bill Evans might have handled it, refined Baroque-tinged meditation: this gorgeously soft-spoken performance has space for them all. It's a beauty and a marvel.

Tracks and Personnel

Solo Piano

Tracks: What Is This Thing Called Love?; Ragtime Dream; I Loves You Porgy; Blues for Sunset; Birthplace; Through the Clouds; Mixolydia; Body and Soul; For Eddie Harris; Central Park West.

Personnel: Lewis Porter: piano.

Melodic Ornette Coleman: Piano Works XIII

Tracks: Lonely Woman; Lost Thoughts; Immeriscible Most Capable of Being; Songworld; Physical Chemistry; Tears That Cry; Aggregate and Bound Together; Hidden Knowledge; Love Is Not Generous, Sex Belongs to Woman; She and He Is Who Fenn Love; Somewhere; Food Stamps on the Moon; Lonely Woman; The End of the World. Personnel

Personnel: Joachim Kühn: piano.

The Space

Tracks: The Space; Encore from Tokyo; Fifth Movement; You Must Believe in Spring; Taro; Kiyoko; If I Should Lose You; Fall from Grace.

Personnel: Kenny Werner: piano.
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