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The piano is an improviser's instrument, a tool of speculation, the keyboard an invitation to elaboration. -Art Lange
The three solo piano discs considered here underscore the incisiveness of Lange's statement.
Dr. Billy Taylor, before his brilliant career as an educator and a spokesperson for jazz, was a smart and accomplished player. As a student of Art Tatum, he developed a beautiful facility at the keyboard that suggested steeping in both the blues and the "European tradition . Jessica Williams herself reflects that blend, finding a stunning technical virtuosity, a solid grounding in the jazz and blues tradition and a classical approach to the wonders of the keyboard. Her tribute to the good doctor is beautifully subtle yet dazzling in its mode of expression. The tunes are all her own but they quietly and definitively put Billy Taylor in the spotlight. The music swings straightforwardly but with an ease that calls to mind Taylor's grace and elegance. Both versions of "Billy's Theme are breathtakingly intimate and deeply soulful. There's a uniformity to the music here - it almost never rises above a whisper, but never lacks for emotional power. Complementing Williams' originals are two extended pieces both called "Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation . It is to Williams' brilliant credit that these works flow seamlessly to and from the other pieces.
Milcho Leviev emigrated from Bulgaria in 1971 to play in trumpeter Don Ellis' big band. They had similar approaches to music that encompassed anything that entered their psyches. Nothing was really off-limits - rock, classical, avant-garde and so much more - and all they worked at had audience-wowing skill and a grand sense of humor. Producer Nick DiScala searched through Ellis' sheet music and found much that was perfect for a solo pianist, particularly one who shared the composer's zest for both music and life. Fans of the Ellis big band might recognize some of these numbers - "Indian Lady and "Pussy Wiggle Stomp are ready examples - and miss some of the volume and power of the orchestra, but Leviev is such a 'big' player that his keyboard work often suggests a much larger palette of colors. "Blues for Elf finds Milcho in Ellis' blues space and also includes nods to Beethoven. The recording's final two numbers are 'classical' compositions that involve no improvisation but suggest a freedom and openness. (Both tunes were written for Ellis' mother and "Sugar's Lullaby , the last piece Ellis wrote, was performed by Leviev at his memorial service.)
Improvisation in its most open and free form expression - though tempered with a compositional sensibility - is at the center of Russ Lossing's provocative new album All Things Arise. (Lange's comments on the piano come from the liner notes.) It's an album that, as the notes say, seems to have two sides - one of free improvisations and one of the pianist's bold takes on some more familiar music. The four free pieces on "side 1 are linked in terms of space, development, intervals, etc. and Lossing gives these explorations a true sense of form. He bridges the worlds of jazz and new music, the pieces feeling as if they arise out of the primal silence of the universe.
And then we come to tunes that the jazzers know - from Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House and Ellington's "Azure to Ornette's "Kathelin Grey and Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song - but even these 'standards' feel as if they're emerging newly formed from a magnificent world of thought and impulse. What's also bridged here are modes of expression - private and intimate to outgoing and audience- involving. Especially instructive are the two takes of the Ellington tune - the first is simple and almost still and the second takes on more of a pulse but still manages to feel reflective and almost motionless.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Finally Free; Billy's Theme No. 1; The Soul Doctor; Blues for BT; Taylor's Triumph; Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 1; Spontaneous Composition and Improvisation No. 2; Billy's Theme No. 2.
Personnel: Jessica Williams: piano
Tracks: Pussy Wiggle Stomp; Possibilities; Homeless; Invincible; Simple Samba; Requiem for a Friendship; Indian Lady; Blues in Elf; Moondrops; Simple Samba (alternate take); Pavane for a True Musical Prince; Rain Forest; Sugar's Lullaby.
Personnel: Milcho Leviev: piano.
All Things Arise
Tracks: Suite: All Things Arise (All Things Arise, Interdependence, From Within, Causes); Azure 1; Pent-Up House; Kathelin Grey; Alabama Song; Verse; Azure 2.