Solo piano allows a jazz artist the most freedom, but it is also a litmus test for the ability to improvise in depth, since there is no opportunity to coast without a rhythm section or additional instruments to take up the slack. Three pianists, each from a different continent and in varying stages of their respective careers, turn in impressive solo sessions.
Since arriving in New York City in the early '80s, Frank Kimbrough has gradually built a following through his many contributions as a sideman, participation in the Jazz Composers Collective, along with CDs of his own. Air, pairing two separate studio sessions recorded four years apart, is among his best works to date.
Kimbrough avoids typical fare in choosing other's songs. He alters the bass line to Thelonious Monk's "Coming on the Hudson (not one of the late composer's better known works), substituting a brisk, rumbling vamp while maintaining a resemblance of the theme in his right hand. Duke Ellington's "Wig Wise , written for his famous Money Jungle trio record with Charles Mingus and Max Roach (and never again played by its composer), is more straight-ahead, focusing on its lyrical, bluesy Monk-like theme. Kimbrough interprets drummer Paul Motian's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago as a requiem, making extensive use of the sustain pedal in this haunting, beautiful piece.
The pianist's own compositions also hold one's interest. The very deliberate, spacious title track has the flavor of being an improvisation, as if Kimbrough is holding chords as he chooses the next few bars. "The Spins is a jagged, post-bop melody that is full of humor, while the equally rambunctious "Ca'lina incorporates stride in a decidedly modern setting.
To most jazz aficionados, Andrea Keller is the least familiar of these three pianists, but don't allow that to fool you. This Australian native born of Czech parents set herself up with a huge challenge by tackling solo interpretations of some of Wayne Shorter's most well-known compositions on Footprints. She shows herself up to the task, beginning with an inventive approach to the jam session favorite title track, though Keller takes this modal work in a new direction, not only by reviving its infrequently-played introduction, but also by detouring in the midst of its theme and reharmonizing the piece. The pianist's teasingly deliberate setting of "Fall gives it a dramatic air.
On several tracks, Keller adds a Nord Electro keyboard, though the instrument is not without its drawbacks. In "Night Dreamer , it is too bright in the mix, distorting what could have been a far more interesting piano solo. Better is the blend between the two keyboards in "Chaos . Keller overdubs a second piano line on three selections. Her judicious mix of the two keyboards in "Go proves that overdubbing isn't just a gimmick but a logical tool. Keller pulls all stops in her strident arrangement of "Fee Fi Fo Fum . Yet in "Mahjong she stays fairly true to Shorter's original recording. Hopefully, Keller will have the opportunity to record for a North American jazz label to gain a greater worldwide audience; in the mean time, snap up this creative tribute.
Martial Solal, who recently turned 80, is still one of the top active jazz pianists. Solitude, recorded in the spring of 2005, is remarkable in that Solal is able to find fresh approaches to such familiar fare as "Darn That Dream , which is heard in two separate takes. The Frenchman has plenty of fun with this standard, darting in and out of its theme, inserting forceful Stravinsky-like chords, a touch of stride and other embellishments that will prompt smiles. Likewise, Solal doesn't just lope through the old warhorse "Caravan , but uses rapid-fire runs (though with a bit more restraint than Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson) even though the tempo of the piece itself is fairly normal. He dissects and reassembles the normally tranquil ballad "(In My) Solitude , hinting briefly at its melody before returning to his playful pyrotechnics.
Solal has also done his share of composing during his career, though his pieces are not widely known. He revisits "Bluesnine (the title track of a 1983 solo album for Soul Note), an effusive blues punctuated with the pianist's percussive touch and humor. The strident theme of "Medium suggests Miles' "Freddie the Freeloader , though in a far darker context.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago; Quickening; Coming On the Hudson; Air; Wig Wise; Three Chords; The Spins; Jackie-ing; Ca'lina.
Personnel: Frank Kimbrough: piano.
Tracks: Footprints; Mahjong; Lost; Ana Maria; Fall; Go; Orbits; Chaos; Fe Fi Fo Fum; Sweet Pea; Night Dreamer; Dance Cadaverous.
Personnel: Andrea Keller: piano, nord.
Tracks: Darn That Dream; Caravan; Our Love Is Here to Stay; Chi Va Piano...; Medium; Bluesine; On a Clear Day; In My Solitude; Darn That Dream [Alternate Take].
Personnel: Martial Solal: piano.