March 8th 2009 10:45 am
Copyright © 2009 Lyn Horton
Published March 8, 2009 at AllAboutJazz.com:
Sitting at the piano before playing it is somewhat like sitting at a drawing table in front of a blank piece of paper before drawing on it. The keyboard is like the piece of paper. Until a pianist touches the keyboard (or not, i.e. John Cage, 4’33,”1952) or the artist makes a mark (or seems to not, i.e. Robert Rauschenberg, ”White Paintings,” 1951), nothing happens: the emptiness is brimming with potential (which implies “substance” to Cage because Cage was exploring the meaning of silence as itself and Rauschenberg was reacting to the overdone-ness of Abstract Expressionist Painting).
The pianist, like the visual artist, is an individual interpreter of the piano. Through this interpretation, how the pianist plays the instrument and subsequently develops a language using it evolves. The instrument becomes the medium of expression, or communication, as well as a participant in the conversation between instrument and musician. The material with which to communicate through piano is, in turn, drawn from the musician’s life-experience.
For the first three weeks in February, a consortium of contributors brings the Series “A World of Piano” to the Northampton (MA) Center for the Arts. This year, three pianists, each of whom might be said to travel under a popular audience radar, performed: Curtis Clark, Connie Cruthers and Joe Bonner.
Curtis Clark is mild-mannered, diffident and carries a small frame. He seemed unaccustomed to performing solo. He announced every piece on the program, reading from a list of one-word titles: simple, direct, unadorned.
His fingers carefully picked out the first notes. The tempo as yet uncharted, he paid great attention the placement of his hands. A tune arose through his fingers. He stopped. The tune resumed like a pageant march. It was time to break open: his right hand zoomed up the keyboard. His left hand pointedly struck chords in the bass and alternated in sets of two. These chords broke the continuity of the arpeggios he rolled out in the treble notes. Recollecting himself in the central section of the keyboard, the entire cycle started anew. Anew in the sense that his gestures constantly changed, but the auditory patterns bore similarity. The resulting textures prevailed in the balance of the program, thick with improvisational dynamic and teeming with signature moves.
Throughout each piece, Clark processed an even mix of chord and fingering progressions. He attended to discrete packages of sonic (and “sound”) ideas, each piece comprising a composite of many unique ideas. The positioning of his hands just to the left of middle C provided the founding of a center.
He would unleash the beginning of a musical line with his left hand and continue it with his right, his hand placements steered by the rhythmic groove, which also prepared the groundwork for the accents. He alternated being poised and deliberate with allowing his fingers to fly into relentless expressions during which a singular phrase disappeared into a plethora of phrasings, the closeness of the intervals the key to the precision of an arpeggio. In every instance when he started a fingering process that brightened the pace, he counterbalanced that gesture with chord plants, clusters and other slow and deliberate finger manipulations that would, in effect, deconstruct the tempo, laying bare its constituents. Not all the ideas were abstract; in fact, they were simple, melodic, concrete and direct, exemplifying articulation in the plainest sense of the word.
Thoroughly open to the keyboard’s promise, he adjusted himself on the bench before he played one note, as if that decision of physical positioning would lead the musical idea to follow. And it was not only one note that he aimed for: it was tens upon tens–chords and phrases, ostinatos, synchronizations, or syncopations– jettisoning him forward in an endless sonic stream that traveled over rocks and through valleys to finally settle in the nearly flawless surface of a pool of glistening water.
Clark exhibited no roughness, no severity, no explosiveness–only repeated straightforward emphasis. If the music slipped into perceptible familiarity, he always pushed himself out of that territory. One could see the music taking shape in his mind as he looked at the keyboard and then picked up his head to look straight ahead. The ending of each piece came without flourish, not unlike the characterization that might fit this unique artist, who described himself as once just a “wee lad,” an autodidact nurtured in Chicago and further educated in California where he adopted classical underpinnings, eventually moving to Europe and then returning to the US, a fully-grown improvising composer who plays genuinely from the heart.
Of the three pianists, Connie Crothers was the only performer to not bring a written plan to the piano. Her plan unfolded as she played. Nothing about Crothers, though, was uncertain. She took hold of the environment, the audience, the location, the local history, and shaped her program in response to it. She decided that the first piece would be a tribute to Max Roach, who had lived nearby in Amherst when he taught at UMass, and with whom she had toured many years earlier.
Her playing did not imitate Max Roach’s rapid-fire snare and dry hi-hatted approach towards the drums. Rather her tribute reflected a map of how he inspired her. Without melody, her flat-handed splats on the keys from the treble to the bass drew the starting line for the wide-angled action to come. The notes and chords to follow became the tools with which she built an unpredictably strong foundation of persistent resonance. The tempo established itself and then changed as the notes multiplied. Her right hand traveled more than her left, which stayed on the bass keys to keep the rhythm. Occasionally her left hand tore itself out of the bass pocket to follow the right into a fingering flurry up the keyboard. But it was not long before, as if magnetized, her left hand made a beeline to the bass keys, leaving the high register at the mercy of diligent, purposeful fluttering. At no point was she playing in the center of the keyboard. The expressive adamancy of her wide embrace of the keyboard lifted her body off the piano bench, her hands dropping from the keys, which still seemed to resonate from the force of her insistent two-handed chords. Not content, merely, with the instrument’s response to her movements, her pianistic methods caused her own body to respond in kind with physical manifestations of the instrument’s effect on her.
Crothers moved on to play the Robin-Rainger standard associated with Billie Holiday, “If I Should Lose You,” and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” performed with no less intensity, no less unpredictability of intentions than any of the spontaneously improvised pieces that came before or after. Both tunes were assembled with chords harmonizing the melody, yet intricate fingering fostered a connective tissue while exerting a sparkling flare between familiar melody signposts. Soon, arpeggios and runs spiraled down the keys to dissemble the themes. If she occasionally ignored the rumble of the bass, it always returned–in the same way that the constant sonic vibrancy overrode discrete rushes of trills and tremolos. Her creations lay bare the extremes of the keyboard, which were available to her to the degree she searched them out, starting in a different place every time, taking a different approach every time. The parameters she established with one finger or her elbow paradoxically marked the boundlessness of her improvisations.
As she continued, delicate sonic notions altered the music in a piece she dedicated to Emily Dickinson. The ideas were the unconventional romantic ones that tell arresting stories, where the intervals between the notes are both wide and tight simultaneously. She wanted to dwell, to linger, in the blues, in a deceptively dream state of mind, but she strove for ecstasy. She erected a border between abstraction and melody the better to probe the question: how does one fabricate melody out of not necessarily a series of single notes and discrete pitches but rather a series of “meaningful” gestures as they combine within the context of the melody?
Her tribute to her mentor, Lennie Tristano, ended the concert. As she introduced the piece she chose to call “Lennie’s Dream,” she transmitted nothing but admiration. In the piano, this emotion translated to thematic concerns, simultaneously locked into the bass and launched in the treble. Blissfully integrated energetic hand and finger motions traveled from mid-keyboard out and then back in again. With a resurgence of two-handed bass ostinatos that progressed to mid-tones and then to repetitions of a melody, she constructed a melody of repetitions. All tuneful coherence that had amassed broke down. Then, as in the beginning, the sounds re- collected. And with her eyes closed and her head held high, notes sprang from the bass to the highest register. And she was done.
In the same manner after each piece, Crothers rose from the bench and turned to the audience, one hand resting on the piano. She looked a bit drained from her intense involvement with her work, but in a way that illuminated her face. She glowed from the satisfaction that her creative instincts had produced in her, to be kept secure until another day, another performance, another application of her unparalleled talent.
The character of Joe Bonner is built on the sizable influence of some big guns, since he was at one time picked as a band member by both Pharoah Sanders and Roy Haynes. Out of the tradition of accomplished instrumentalists and composers, he has risen like a musical engine that runs in perpetual overdrive. Dressed in a black tux, a ruffled shirt topped off with an oversized velvet bow tie, Bonner came to this concert to display his dynamic wares. He wove his repertoire of piano moves skillfully into standards, both familiar and not.
Teasing the keys in front of him with two hands, starting a bass ostinato before he propelled himself into fluid treble runs that conjured up falling tear drops, Bonner fingered phrases reaching over one hand to land bass chords with the other. The tempo was slow, but quickly changed as the melody of “How Long Has This Been Going On” shone through. Bonner began to improvise on the theme in a non-abstract, formalist way, attending to a multitude of means to intermix ornamenting and phrasing with primary theme. He displayed a veritable lexicon of piano stylizations in an outright defiance of monotony.
Yet everything was about the Gershwin melody: how well could he paint the thematic lyricism and how many times he could change the substance with which he was working as he spread his wings to fly or as he stayed in one place. Sometimes the piano sounded like a harp evoking the image of everything gossamer. At other times, the changes in key told his story, a narrative of the blues.
In general, Bonner’s penchant for exaggeration demonstrated his versatility at the keyboard. Heavy bass chords gave birth to sparkling tremolos. Elegance and precision accompanied a huge range of hand motion that unified melody with improvisation. His physical movement rendered a seamless succession of notes from one end of the keyboard to the other, rapidly or gradually, singly or in repetitions or clusters. The melodies flowered in accordance with the directions in which they pointed. Swells of sound came out of nowhere in bass tremolos which were upended by rips up the keyboard from the center to the treble end. He leaned back to prepare for crashing into the keys, which he did several times to create an unrelenting resonance. Never once, did he sacrifice the tune he was working with: from the aforementioned Gershwin song to the pop period piece “Stranger In Paradise,” from the Broadway musical “Kismet,” to the theme from Peanuts to Barney Kessel’s “Love Is For the Very Young.” Yet he also comfortably incorporated other familiar melodies within the greater ones–to the point where he wound up playing medleys. The rhythmic elements were irrefutable amid the flurry.
Bonner could have played all night. The first two sets were separated by an intermission that lasted about five minutes. After bowing once, he returned, sat at the piano in the dark and just let loose. And then after many bows, and assorted manifestations of appreciation, he briefly disappeared into the dressing room–but came out once again for a third set! What the audience could have expected to be an hour or so of music became two hours–all filled with Bonner’s personality and straightforward exhibition of love of the music.
This solo piano series gives its ever-growing audience a player-by-player glimpse into the realm of possibilities that lie in the playing of the instrument. Every player without doubt has the same tools in hand, devices learned through formal training or self-discovery. The difference among players, though, is stark, for each shapes what he or she knows at the very instant of concert time. How the pianist feels, what the pianist wants to say at that moment, sets the framework for sound which has never before been heard.