Free jazz is about pushing limits and reinventing sound. Ornette Coleman was an innovator due in part to the unique sound of his plastic saxophone. Horn players like Miles Davis, Marshall Allen and Evan Parker paved the way for the airy, wheezing, rambling and sputtering that we hear so often in free improv today. So far, the piano has been saved from extensive abuse and experimentation. No matter how you play the piano, whether it is with fingers, elbows or a wooden stick, it still sounds, well, like a piano.
There is, however, at least one method of changing the piano's sound that has been around since the turn of the century: prepared piano. French pianist Sophie Agnel employs the method extensively in her latest release, Capsized Moments. A listener with no background information may perhaps hear a piano-horn-percussion trio, but there is only Agnel. There are also no electronicsjust a couple of random objects, including "plastic made in China, mass-produced aluminum foil, industrial nylon, inner-tube rubber, polished rock" (delineated in the liner notes). The album is presented in three parts, each more sinister than the next. The low drones, menacing moans and tinny cries in Part 1 form the basis for the CD's industrial motif. Agnel turns the piano into a factory, where the clinking and scraping together of metal parts convey the immensity and emptiness of industry. She continues to toy with various preparations of the piano in Parts 2 and 3 and manufactures unearthly, un-piano-like sounds that become part of her ensemble.
While Agnel pushes the limits of the piano, American pianist Jessica Williams rejoices in the instrument's natural capabilities. In The Art of the Piano, she engages in the natural beauty of what a piano should sound like (that is, without the influence of digital devices or foreign objects). Her sound is, as a result, beautiful, crisp and pure and somehow the quality of it amplifies the emotions of her songs. "Triple Door Blues" exudes boldness and audacity, for example, and "Prophets" is powerful in its somber ambiance and enduring optimism.
Swiss pianist Katharina Weber takes the sparse approach to piano in her debut solo album, Woven Time. In 15 solo improvisations, the classically trained artist can hardly escape her rootsshades of Romanticism and the Second Viennese School permeate her songs. Weber describes the act of improvising as trying to "find my own language," which is evident in the thoughtfulness of each note. The silences in Weber's pieces express an intense desire to delve exhaustively into an idea. "Wegsuche" and "Schuettelbecher" are hauntingly beautiful examples of her earnest approach to improvisation.
In a complete turnaround from Weber and Agnel, Japanese pianist Hiromi exudes vim and vigor in her debut solo album, Place To Be. This CD documents her last few years on the road and Hiromi shows an uncanny ability to capture the energy of all the places she has visited. In "BQE" (for Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), she conveys the harrowing traffic and hectic energy of that 'beloved' highway with deft fingers. Her excitement comes through brilliantly in "Berne, Baby, Berne!," an ode to Marian's Jazzroom, one of her favorite nightspots in Europe. Hiromi calms down a little in "Daytime in Las Vegas," a sentimental piece filled with pearly trills and romantic interludes. She hopes to perform this tune in Vegas one day. As a journal of sorts, Place To Be records not only her adventures but also her hopes for the future.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Capsizing Moments part 1; Capsizing Moments part 2; Capsizing Moments part 3.
Personnel: Sophie Agnel: piano.
The Art of the Piano
Tracks: Triple Door Blues; Esperanza; Love and Hate; Elaine; First Gymnopedie; Prophets; Diane; Lonnie's Lament.
Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano.
Tracks: Wegsuche; Sicht aus dem Kopfstand; Spiegelfläche; Flohzirkus; Quint-Essenz; Verstrebungen; Der wildgewordene Steinfrosch; Gefälschte Obertöne und die Wahrheit dahinter; Dialog mit dem Hausgeist; Der Traum der Gräfin; Schüttelbecher; Bebung; Was bleibt?; Säulengänge; Auf und davon.
Personnel: Katharina Weber: piano.
Place To Be
Tracks: BQE; Choux a la Creme; Sicilian Blue; Berne: Baby: Berne!; Somewhere; Cape Code Chips; Islands Azores; Pachelbel's Canon; Show City: Show Girl; Daytime in Las Vegas; The Gambler; Place To Be.
Personnel: Hiromi: piano.