Composer/pianist Tom Pierson, who now lives in Japan, recorded the music on Planet of Tears, much of it with his New York City-based big band, more than a dozen years ago. On the one hand, Pierson is a splendid writer/arranger with a well-defined game plan. (Gil Evans once called him “the best unknown composer I know.”) On the other, his writing does almost nothing for me, which is more an indication of my lack of musical comprehension than of Pierson’s lack of ability. While he clearly knows what he is doing, the finished product is far too dry and esoteric to establish any sort of an emotional connection at this end. In other words, I can admire Pierson’s artistry and that of his musicians even though I can’t really warm to it. His charts may be elaborate and challenging but they don’t usually swing, at least not in the way I’ve come to understand and appreciate the term.
Even though the band houses a number of world-class soloists, Lou Marini, Don Byron, Scott Robinson and the others sound (to me) more forced and strident than smooth and self-confident. Perhaps it’s the framework within which they are extemporizing. Five of the seven selections are by the big band, with the first three “Fright,” “Zaymah,” “Deceitful Eyes” separated by Pierson’s placid ruminations for solo piano, “Once” and “Ballade.”
Explaining his approach to big-band composing, Pierson says he is “interested in a more creative form. Traditional form uses choruses the cyclical repetition of a harmonic pattern to organize the composition. I often use a kind of rondo idea, alternating the written themes with open- ended solos. . . .Sometimes ‘style’ starts to limit the feelings you can put into the music. That’s why music that imitates older styles is often so weak emotionally. You have to unlock those stylistic limitations to make room for the complete honesty of your feeling.”
Honest, yes; but emotionally rewarding that lies in the ear of the beholder, and Planet of Tears leaves me more apathetic than excited, even though Pierson leads an impressive big band powered by a superb drummer, Pheeroan akLaff. It’s simply too avant-garde for my taste, but perhaps not for yours.
Track Listing: Fright; Once; Zaymah; Ballade; Deceitful Eyes; Black Art; Planet of Tears (57:51).
Personnel: Tom Pierson, composer, arranger, leader, piano; Michael Philip Mossman, Dominic Derasse, Mike
Ponella, Joyce Toth, Mac Gollehon, Peter Margulies, Gary Guzio, trumpet; Scott Robinson, Lou
Marini, Ross Novgrad, David Bixler, Anders Paulsson, Don Byron, Rolando Briceno, Mark Vinci,
Diego Pokropowicz, reeds; John Fedchock, Sam Burtis, Ed Neumeister, Dan Levine, Jack Schatz,
Herb Besson, trombone; Gary Kelly, bass, Pheeroan akLaff, drums.