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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Monday, August 08, 2005

Taking Jazz Piano Beyond the Charted Boundaries - New York Times

Taking Jazz Piano Beyond the Charted Boundaries - New York TimesAugust 8, 2005
Taking Jazz Piano Beyond the Charted Boundaries

New York is crawling with knockout jazz pianists, so why all the emphasis on Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau? It could be because they each start with jazz as home base, but play every note with one eye fixed on an outside turf not already mapped, surveyed and cataloged by jazz aesthetics. These aren't necessarily spaces with signs on them - "hip-hop" or "classical" or "Latin" or whatever. They are personal, and they grow out of improvisational gestures. Many who like jazz, but are not of it - a growing number - have responded almost intuitively.

Each musician has gone down extremely well in the network of college and institutional-arts-center gigs, where "eclectic" is the password. Central Park SummerStage has been a pioneer and leader in that concert-booking philosophy, and on Friday night, for a bill called "Pianos in the Park," it stacked up Mr. Moran, Mr. Mehldau and a third pianist, Eric Lewis, who has also been cultivating his own garden parallel to jazz.

Mr. Moran, with his trio Bandwagon, played a set half pulled from his new record, "Same Mother" (Blue Note). That album is about ("about" is the word, much more than "of") the blues, and after nearly a year of playing the music on the road, it sounds fully correct, with sharper technique and just as much stubborn personality as ever. Mr. Moran's group improvised together, rarely settling into anything resembling standard swing rhythm, but bunching up into knotty passages and then, at the cue of a piano chord, cohering into a vamp or a theme. A couple of these pieces used sustained blues form (like Mr. Moran's fast shuffle "Jump Up," and "I'll Play the Blues for You," borrowed from an old Albert King record), but Mr. Moran has also figured out ways of passing in and out of the blues, of letting it smolder in the background while his original group sound takes precedence. He played some stride piano as well in the set, and closed it with a version of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," which had nothing to do with hip-hop per se; the song was mulched by Mr. Moran's transformative style. That piece - and the rest of the set - proved again the neutrality of written material in the best jazz groups.

Mr. Mehldau is on to something. As you can hear on last year's album, "Live in Tokyo" (Nonesuch), when he plays solo piano he packs a song with harmonic complexity through churning rhythm. In the tradition of jazz musicians who get outside the clichés associated with their instruments, he can suggest an advanced version of guitar fingerpicking. He also has an orderly mind for moving through the strains of a song. He tends not to violate the overall structure, though he smuggles endless small improvised elements into the dense, hammering rhythmic weave.

His solo set on Friday was mostly material he had been chewing on for nearly a decade - some Monk, some Radiohead, John Coltrane's "Countdown." But through his improvisational devices, he is punching his way to new places with it.

Mr. Lewis knows his way around all sorts of jazz style and repertory, having played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and in jam sessions in New York for a decade. Now he wants to make an impression. In the evening's opening set he played some high-technique percussive solo piano, a trio version of Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio," and an original vamp tune with the trio plus the guitarist Ron Affif that stretched out to nearly a half-hour. It was simple, amiable groove music, and when it got into higher gear, bubbles shot out from the rear of the stage. At the end of his set, Mr. Lewis thanked his manager, his trainer, a sponsor, his friends, enemies and God, and slowly, meaningfully, ambled offstage.

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