When famed jazz scholar Gunther Schuller first coined the term "Thematic Improvisation," he wasn't introducing a new concept so much as shedding light on how jazz artists had come to use the age-old "Theme And Variations" format in their own sweet way. While nobody would argue that grand compositional gestures or outré improvisations from a master musician can be revealing, hearing an artist dissect and rebuild a musical theme on the spot is the real window into their mind. A musician may have all of the usual musical tools at their disposal, like key changes, tempo changes, rhythmic diminution and augmentation, and harmonic and melodic alteration, but they're only tools, and the artist still has to do the heavy lifting with the head, hands and heart.
Noted pianist Kevin Hays explores the virtues of variants on this simply titled CD, as he delivers 24 musical miniatures in just over fifty minutes. The music itself can be alternately prosaic, romantic, staid, somber, unsettling, or stirring, but all of it paints Hays as a wizard of harmony and clarity. His touch places him in a class by himself and he seems to be one of the few ivory ticklers that understand how to use the full range of the instrument. Few pianists dare to spend time in the deepest recesses of the eighty-eights, and most who try end up creating a muddy mess, but Hays has big ears and fine fingers that coax rich and wondrous harmonies from the piano's deepest, darkest places.
While a clear choice was made not to program the thematically linked pieces in order, skipping around to hear all of the variations on the same idea in sequence may be the best way to visit this music and appreciate his method of development and creation. Hays uses simplicity as an entry point to more Romantic notions, eventually ending up in dirge-like environs with deeply resonant bass tones that resemble a tolling bell of doom on his "Variations On A Theme By Schumann," but that's only one of several scenarios explored herein. Elsewhere, he milks angular piano paranoia for all it's worth ("The Dervish Of Harlem" variations), plays the part of a pseudo-minimalist with repeated arpeggiated lines ("Bluetude" variants), and deals with Baroque ideals as subtext in his work during parts of the "Contrapunctus" and "Countermyth" collections.
On the whole, Variations tends to lean toward the modern classical side of music, with improvisatory creationism being its one and only true link to jazz, but labeling is beside the point. Variations is pure pianism on parade.
Track Listing: Variations On A Theme By Schumann I; Bluetude I; The Dervish Of Harlem I; Song For The Amiable Child I; Contrapunctus I; Rumi's View I; Countermyth I; Rhyming Game I; The Dervish Of Harlem II; Countermyth II; Langsam; The Long Line; Song For The Amiable Child II; Countermyth III; Variations On A Theme By Schumann II; Bluetude II; Rhyming Game II; Countermyth IV; Rumi's View II; Contrapunctus II; Song For The Amiable Child III; The Dervish Of Harlem III; Bluetude III; Variations On A Theme By Schumann III.
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