For those who have taken care of their health and had the luck of the draw of favorable genes, the so-called "golden years" can produce some of the most rewarding performances and recordings of a career. Four solo pianists reviewed below offer solid proof that they show no signs of slowing down.
Abdullah Ibrahim has gone far since introduced to a wider jazz audience by Duke Ellington as Dollar Brand in the early '60s. 73 at the time of Senzo, a 2008 studio session made for a German radio broadcast, Ibrahim knits together 22 tracks into a lengthy suite, including both old and new works. Bracketing the CD are two versions of his soothing, meditative ballad "Ocean and the River". Ibrahim returns to his "Blues For a Hip King," a reverent, elegant work, though his tribute "For Coltrane" is surprisingly subdued. "Jabulani" bursts with energy as a celebratory dance at first but then Ibrahim alternately improvises rapid-fire and mellow lines over his sauntering bass line vamp. Near the end of the performance, Ibrahim salutes Ellington with a compelling yet obtuse arrangement of "In a Sentimental Mood" that never comes close to stating the melody.
Now in his early 70s, Ran Blake's solo piano outings have been especially fascinating. Driftwoods is no exception, an eclectic mix of ballads chosen from several genres, all played in a manner suggesting that Blake was experimenting late at night with no one else present. Blake's tensive use of the sustain pedal is prominent throughout as are his striking, often unexpected voicings. Two versions of the standard "Dancing in the Dark" are heard back to back, the latter take being more strident in comparison to the shorter initial performance, though both are haunting interpretations. "Lost Highway" was a hit country song though Blake's deliberate, moody arrangement disguises its roots. On "Unforgettable," Blake stays somewhat close to the theme, slowly exploring its essence while occasionally overwhelming the microphone with forceful, dramatic chords. His brief exploration of "Strange Fruit" conveys as much, if not more, sorrow than most vocal versions and a dark setting of the gospel song "There's Been a Change" and the bluesy treatment of "I'm Going to Tell God" contrast with traditional approaches.
Another elder statesman is Paul Bley, who was 74 at the time of this studio session. Long one of the most difficult pianists to categorize, even this solo outing resists labeling. It consists of only two tracks, the first being a 33-plus minute improvisation that runs the gamut of styles, ranging from free jazz to stride, snatches of standards, bop, soul jazz, post-bop and more. In spite of the quirky nature of this extended performance, the result comes off rather well, keeping one's interest throughout. Although he is credited with writing the second track, labeled "Encore," it is simply a playful, mostly low-key workout of Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House," though it blends both intimate and humorous sections, hardly comparable to the way this bop favorite is typically interpreted.
Martial Solal has been active as a professional jazz pianist for over six decades and this live set, recorded at the Village Vanguard not long after his 80th birthday, finds him at the top of his game. Starting with "On Green Dolphin Street," Solal shows a great deal of playfulness with an obtuse introduction, sudden key changes and amusing interpolations of other songs. "Lover Man" is also dramatically altered from a lyrical ballad into an imaginative romp with a bit of wild dissonance for added seasoning. "'Round Midnight" benefits from the master's touch, incorporating rapid-fire runs and unexpected chords, removing the expected eerie sounds while adding some hilarious Stravinsky-like passages. He takes the old chestnut "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" from its normally light-hearted swing setting into a distinctly modern setting that fans of Art Tatum will appreciate. The pianist's two originals, the dark "Centre de Gravite" and volcanic, semi-classical "Ramage," also prove to be captivating.
Tracks and Personnel:
Tracks: Ocean & the River; In the Evening; Blues for Bea; Prelude 'For Coltrane'; Aspen; Blues for a Hip King; Third Line Samba; Tookah; Pula; For Coltrane; Dust; Corridors; Radiant; Jabulani; Dust (Reprise); Nisa; 'Senzo'Contours and Time; Meditation/Mummy Banyana, Children of Africa; Mamma; Blue Bolero; In a Sentimental Mood; Ocean & the River.
Personnel: Abdullah Ibrahim: piano.
Tracks: Driftwood; Dancing in the Dark 2; Dancing in the Dark 1; Lost Highway; Unforgettable; Cançao do Sol; No More; I Loves You, Porgy; Strange Fruit; Pawnbroker; There's Been a Change; Portrait; I'm Going to Tell God; You Are My Sunshine.
Personnel: Ran Blake: piano.
Tracks: About Time; Pent-Up House.
Personnel: Paul Bley: piano.
I Can't Give You Anything But Love: Live at the Village Vanguard
Tracks: Intro 1; On Green Dolphin Street; Lover Man; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; Centre de Gravité; Ramage; 'Round Midnight; Have You Met Miss Jones?; The Last Time I Saw Paris; Intro 2; Corcovado.
Personnel: Martial Solal: piano.