There are three outstanding piano albums now in release that need your immediate attention. Each is the product of a fertile imagination, unique approach and virtuosic skill. Mitchel Forman, Stu Goldberg and Gary Husband are among the strongest voices on piano in the last 25 years. Each has taken a different and exciting journey to the place they are now at. But, they all share a degree of separation
from guitarist John McLaughlin and, therefore, a 2 degree separation from each other. All three albums are a continuum in some form of that relationship. It is fitting they be discussed in the same breath.
Mitchel Forman has long been a player of good notes. Best known for his time in the 1980's bands of John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter, the Californian has also released a number of impressive albums under his own name over the years. You could hear in his early solo album work, most notably on Only a Memory, what a lyrical, open and nuanced touch he possessed. He has added even more emotional depth and aplomb to that touch over the years.
Forman's compositions have always stood out as distinctive themes bulwarked by his expressive improvisational skills. But, he has also taken time out to become an interpretive artist of the highest order. His 1992 tribute album to Bill Evans, Now & Then, was quite a revelation in this vein.
His new album, Perspectives, has Forman living in both worlds. He offers up 3 of his own tunes and 11 other pieces from such admired composers as Herbie Hancock and Lennon and McCartney.
In addition to piano, Forman plays all the keys, handles the sequencing and even plays a bit of guitar and drums. On the group pieces he is joined by bassist Trey Henry, drummer Ray Brinker and percussionist Munyungo Jackson. They are joined by guitarist Jeff Richman on the Herbie Hancock penned "Dolphin Dance.
Why did Forman choose to play the standards or "near-standards" for the new release?
Mitch Forman: It just sort of happened that way. The first song I worked on was "Geraldine" by Russell Ferrante. It was about two years ago that I started on that one. I had no plan for a CD. It was just for fun. Then I worked on a Keith Jarrett song. I've always learned so much from the great pianists like Chick, Herbie, and Keith and thought it might be fun to do a "greatest hits using their music.
As expected, Forman's playing is full of swinging inventiveness and refined subtlety. Unexpected, are the ambient industrial effects used to great success through several of the group pieces. These modern effects work quite well, but when you walk away from Forman's music; it will be the melodies of his acoustic piano you will be humming.
"What a Wonderful World is a solo piano piece. This performance defines Forman's approach to music. He goes to the heart of the music and filters it through his own melodic membrane. The very nature of this iconic tune has always been of a forlorn hope tinged with optimism. But, Forman somehow burrows beneath the melody to expose even more of its vulnerable underbelly. His interpretation will remind you of every thoughtful moment you have ever experienced.
Forman also updates the Mahavishnu John McLaughlin piece "Thousand Island Park, giving it a pleasing and exciting semi-Latin treatment.
Two Beatle tunes appear on Perspectives. Each is presented in a way never heard before. Forman takes quite an aggressive stance with the compositions- most notably on "Michelle.
Mitch Forman: I think that so many Beatles' songs are great musically and so recognizable. They've almost become the standards of my generation as compared to the Gershwin and Cole Porter songs of the last generation.
Perspectives makes it clear that Forman's original ideas are just as enlightening to the standards as they are to his own compositions. His playing makes the standards non-standard.
Stu Goldberg & Cassius Khan
Stu Goldberg: I heard Mitch live once with John McLaughlin in an electric context around 1985, but I've never heard him live on acoustic piano. After listening to samples from several of his albums on his MySpace site, my impressions are that he has a very beautiful lyrical approach, nice tone, clean execution and a fluid expression.
Stu Goldberg was a Mitchel Forman precursor in John McLaughlin's bands of the seventies. His synthesizer runs helped propel the second and third versions of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the One Truth Band. He later enjoyed a successful solo piano recording career in Europe before giving the road up to settle down in British Columbia. He has owned a recording studio for many years and has written music for movies and television, including the hit show The Amazing Race.
Recently, Stu decided he was ready to hit the road again. His and Khan's new album Dark Clouds should pave the way for a very rewarding trip.
Goldberg has spent a considerable amount of time studying Indian music. On the new album he has integrated this study seamlessly into his bluesy jazz approach. Joining him are tabla player and vocalist Cassius Khan and vocalist Jennifer Lauren Goldberg. Goldberg certainly is not the only player out there these days who has become enamored with the possibilities of East-West fusion. The movement seems to be growing every week. However, Goldberg is taking the piano, never a strong voice in Indian music, to places it has not been.
Stu Goldberg: Keyboards have been used in Indian music for years. For instance, playing monophonic melodic phrases on the harmonium (portable hand pump organ) is common and is mainly used as an accompaniment to Indian classical vocals. And of course synthesizers & electronic keyboards have been used for years in Bollywood to create the sound of a bigger ensemble, filling between vocal phrases and playing string pads. But, to my knowledge, the piano hasn't been used as a featured instrument in the way that we do on Dark Clouds.
Indeed, Goldberg's emphatic playing strongly suggests that the piano could have been introduced to a leading role in Indian music instrumentation long ago. Goldberg has meshed his Eastern influences with his Western classical and jazz vocabulary to such a degree, that the end result is neither.
Goldberg made a very calculated "less is more decision.
Stu Goldberg: My goal in this project was to create an intimacy through the sparse instrumentation and open production, where we (He and percussionist Khan) could bounce ideas off of each other and have freedom to really stretch out. Sonically, both the tabla and piano have such a wide frequency range, I thought it important to leave sonic space for that range to be heard and developed.
Goldberg's daughter, Jennifer, makes her recording debut. She sings, in English, in duet with Khan (not in English) and solo. It takes a moment or two to get used to the English lyrics in this context, but soon you will find yourself right in the pocket. Khan is an impressive percussionist and singer. Goldberg's voice is a cross between the jazz-tinged sophistication of Norah Jones and breathlessness of a pop diva. It quite effectively contributes to the cross-cultural picture her proud father is painting.
Dark Clouds showcases Goldberg's global imagination and his dazzling control of the black and white keys before him. His re-emergence on the scene is a welcome event.
a meeting of spirits
Gary Husband: I was, and still am a big, big fan of Stu Goldberg. He has this vibrant, very unique and distinctive soloing style. He's a beautiful guy too. Among my favorite of his work has to be the Mahavishnu album Inner Worlds - the organ solo in particular on the first track ... fantastic! Then there's an old solo album he made around the same period. Solo, Duos, Trios I think it's called. There is some beautiful string writing on there, lovely compositions and great Mini Moog soloing.
Gary Husband is best known for his fine drumming alongside such musical luminaries as Allan Holdsworth and in the band Level 42. His extraordinary keyboard playing has been less in the forefront, though he has exhibited it in Billy Cobham's band and in his own "Force Majeure project.
A meeting of spirits is his solo piano homage to the music of John McLaughlin. Last year a lifelong dream came true when he played with McLaughlin. This CD follows his critically acclaimed Allan Holdsworth tribute album,The Things I See, from a few years back.
True aficionados of all things McLaughlin will discover a kindred spirit in Husband. Faster than the listener can even think, Husband dissects and displays McLaughlin riff after riff and theme after theme. He plays them crooked, upside-down, sideways, inside-out, hurriedly, slowed-down and often times he just suggests a brief melody. True McLaughlin fans will fill in the missing notes in their head.
Though this project could have only been played by someone with an intimate understanding of McLaughlin's music, it is Husband's surrounding notes that make his tribute to McLaughlin a true masterpiece.
Stu Goldberg: After hearing his The Things I See, I was immediately struck with his novel, almost orchestral approach to layering multiple piano takes over one another to create his dense tapestry of sound. Gary plays with a lot of heart and clearly doesn't rely on licks and preconceived bags of tricks in his solos. When he improvises he's creating in the moment. A few days ago I received his new CD. I was very impressed again with his wonderful dense layering approach and super interesting new harmonizations and contrapuntal detail. Being a drummer, his timing is rock solid. Throughout, his improvisations are fresh and interesting. I respect his "no compromise approach to his music.
There are so many routes Gary could have taken to interpret the music of those he admires most. But, Gary decided he wanted to present a very personal message that fully integrates his own music with the aura of those he is honoring.
Gary Husband: On both The Things I See, and this new one, there's pretty much an identical approach. There's a same kind of balance featured here between certain pieces that involve more of an "expansion on the original" approach. There are others that are practically reinvented, some others that feature more of an abstract view and the odd one or two that very much hold close to the original forms. Of course, on piano you have to start from scratch, harmonically, since guitar harmony doesn't translate at all well on piano. That suits me as I'm a complete harmony junkie anyway!! Harmony, and form. Both I love. But the spirit is so important to me too - to evoke or retain something in however way, shape or form of the original essence, or spirit of the original composition, no matter how extreme, alternative or abstract a "re-approach" might suggest itself.
Husband delves into every McLaughlin epoch. One flash of a moment he focuses on 1969 McLaughlin with "Earth Bound Hearts. At another he is pounding out, literally, a rollicking interpretation of the 1973 Mahavishnu classic "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters. There are plenty of implied references to the 80's, 90's and 00's as well.
Gary had to be worried how McLaughlin, and Holdsworth before him, would react to the final product.
Gary Husband: I wouldn't say I worried as such, but I was of course extremely hopeful both of these gentlemen would enjoy the outcome of my work on these records. I can imagine it must have required more than a little adjustment for both of them! But, I've really had nothing but such kind and complimentary feedback from the two of them. This is of course great. You know, both projects were born out of such colossal admiration and just real .. love, really.
a meeting of spirits is a tour de force of piano invention that will enchant McLaughlin fans and anyone else who appreciates interpretive art.
Humbly, Mitch Forman felt "unqualified to comment on the music of his keyboard compatriots, but all three players respect and admire each other. After all, only 2 degrees separate them on the 360 degree circle that connects all music.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Dolphin Dance; Yaqui Folk Song; First Trip; Geraldine; You're Everything; Here There and Everywhere; What a Wonderful World; Blossom; Milton; Face on the Barroom Floor; Michelle; Thousand Island Park; A Dog's Life; A Wonderful World (NOT).
Personnel: Mitchel Forman: piano, keys, sequencing, guitar, snare drum; Trey Henry: bass; Ray Brinker: drums; Munyungo Jackson: percussion; Jeff Richman: guitar; Wolfgang Haffner: drums reconstituted.
Tracks: Ragamala; Rain; Keherwa; Dark Clouds.
Personnel: Stu Goldberg: piano, percussion; Cassius Khan: tabla, vocals; Jennifer Lauren Goldberg: vocals (2,4).
a meeting of spirits
Tracks: Spirits Opening; A Meeting of Spirits; It's Funny; Lotus Feet Reflections; Celestial Terrestrial Commuters; Lotus Feet (Reprise); Earth Bound Hearts; Development and Closing; Jazz Jungle (Excerpt); Maya Prologue; The Dance of the Maya; Alap; Are You the One?; Vision is a Naked Sword; Joyful; Song for My Mother.
Personnel: Gary Husband: piano.