Between 1989 and 1995, Concord Records produced 42 solo piano recitals, all recorded in Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley in California. Each recital featured a different jazz pianist; the series eventually consisted of 42 CDs. The entire series is now available on streaming services…so LJN invited pianist Liam Noble to reflect on the series, and also on the art of the solo piano recital. This introductory article is the first of four, although at this stage we don’t want to rule out the possibility there might be encores…
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A Room With A Piano In It
There are many ways to order a CD collection: by artist (alphabetically), by genre, alphabetically within each genre and even, unconvincingly if you ask me, by the colours of the sleeves. But never by location. . I’m an alphabet person, but I might be tempted to file all the “Live At Maybeck Recital Hall” discs under “M”, because in a way, the hall, and the piano in it, are the protagonists here.
Designed by Bernard Maybeck as a live-in residence for Joseph Nixon’s piano teacher, Alma Kennedy, the Maybeck Recital Hall was part of a larger building known as the “Kennedy-Nixon House”, thus sending me down a rabbit hole of American historical research that proved unfruitful very quickly.
Its redwood panelling and modest, fifty seat capacity lend it just enough reverb without resulting in that “classical recital swim” of ringing overtones that excellent pianos are often heir to (a grand instrument needs, it seems, a grand room.) There are two pianos, both Yamahas. They are usually a bit on the bright side, but these recordings reveal a rich and varied tone depending on the fingers extracting it. These recordings show how a pianist can own the room. The hall itself showcases impressive stained glass windows casting long beams of sunlight across so much wood that you’d think the whole place had been carved into a huge tree trunk. I can see how, in such God fearing surroundings, the choice of repertoire might suggest itself. Nothing too crazy OK?
We know what we like.
But that’s part of the fascination for me with these discs. Those who uphold the continuing dominance of the “Great American Songbook” often describe it as a great leveller. There’s a common feeling amongst jazz afficionados that goes something like this: “yeah, he/she is very interesting, but I’d love to hear them just play a standard so I can see how they really play”. Like all level playing fields, its often those favoured by its unspoken gradient who subscribe to that view, but here it is merely part of the brand, a bit like the piano sound on Blue Note records. Although occasional garnishes of originals and improvised interludes crop up throughout, almost as palette cleansers, standards are definitely the main course. I wonder how much of this was dictated by programming policy and how much by practicality and preference. Everyone who’s ever played solo piano knows that you are always playing the room and the people in it as much as the music in your head. Sometimes you walk into a place, lift the piano lid and play a few notes, take a look at the pictures on the wall, the programme of past bookings…that will tell you what the gig is without any verbal communication whatsoever. You can, of course, play against that, and that is also great fun.
But looking at the room is cheating: I’m trying to focus on the sound...
And what a sound it is! If you listen to a good few of these recordings in a row, you start to recognise the sonic reflections of the room almost as much as the pianists in it. And having that focus of a consistent setting, each player brings their own sound, their own way of reacting to the room. The miracle of the piano is that, despite the fact that every note is dying once the string is struck by the hammer, there’s a million ways you can make it feel like it’s getting bigger. It’s all, of course, sleight of hand, but to hear first the ferocity of Joanne Brackeen (volume 1) and then the silky smooth machine of Dave McKenna (volume 2) is to feel this on an almost empirical level. There are a wide range of styles, touches, dynamics in this collection, exhibited by an impressive roster of musicians. It’s easier to say who isn’t here….
Well let’s start there. It’s a small room. There are no box office busters…no Herbie, Chick, McCoy, Jarrett. For some of the reasons outlined above, perhaps, there are no iconoclasts: Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley and Andrew Hill, if invited, politely declined.
What we have in this collection is working piano players, young and old. It’s a kind of history of the instrument told by those who could work a fifty seater venue and play tunes. Many, like Gerald Wiggins, Andy Laverne, Walter Norris I mostly remember hearing on other people’s records (Norris was the first and, for many years, the only pianist to record with Ornette Coleman, for example). Some, like Steve Kuhn, Richie Beirarch and Hank Jones are established legends who sound pretty close to their best in this hall. Others, like James Williams, Roland Hanna, John Hicks and Jaki Byard are perhaps less known about than they should be. And there’s a whole load of people I didn’t know about, some of whom really knocked me out. I’m planning to go into some of these recordings in subsequent articles, but after listening to forty two of these albums, there’s one thing that emerges for me, one thing that unites them all.
It’s this: playing solo piano is an act of foolish heroism. The instrument inevitably lends itself to it. When I played a series of solo livestream gigs in lockdown, I felt incredibly lucky to play an instrument that could present a set of music on its own. Before the juke box, there was the piano, and someone in the family could always knock out a selection of whatever was popular at the time. The piano is built for amateurs and professionals alike, for tunes to be rendered by anyone who can find the notes, to be elaborated on at great length or boiled down to the finest of bare bone skeletons. But because of this, its uniquely egalitarian quality (shared perhaps only with the guitar), the space for real brilliance is a narrow one. So I’m not going to do too much criticising of performances I don’t like (they’ll be noted, perhaps, for their absence here). A solo pianist is like a stand up comedian: you travel alone and go home alone. In between you have about an hour to pull off some kind of magic. They are to be pitied as much as praised and, if I could, I would wish them all good luck.