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.
In this article, the last of the series of four, Liam Noble reflects on the series with specific reference to…roughly half of the forty-two pianists included in it:
Most things that are worth being interested in do not present themselves as such, not at first. Take a piece of wood, for example. A first look might be all about whether it’s big enough to prop up your broken bookshelf, but look again, see how the grain forms huge dark whirlwinds, or perhaps is flecked like the fur of an expensive cat, or maybe impossibly straight as if drawn with a set square. But then, having noticed these characteristics, it might become boring again, each piece another example of something that, when you had first seen it, was a revelation. The amassing of experience, the gaining of knowledge and the gradual ramping up of expectations…perhaps now you’ll never be truly happy unless you find a new breed of tree that even David Attenborough has never laid eyes on.
I’d like to thank the “Jazz At Maybeck Recital Hall” series for dragging me through this same strange cycle.
Most people will first encounter the sound of jazz piano in the kind of hotel or restaurant that still likes the idea of it in the background, a kind of signifier of a classy venue: I’ve sat in many a cheap suit in these situations, hoping that nobody spots the man within. It’s a safe space where one can learn a lot of tunes, surreptitiously practice and learn how to vary renditions of the (mostly) Great American Songbook enough to stay awake on the job. In many ways it’s an invaluable way of learning the craft, gaining stamina. But it’s not a “recital” situation, and that’s part of its charm for all concerned. Maybeck elevates this music to a concert setting, and the classical atmosphere takes some getting used to here, but why?
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Well, I think solo piano has a lot of “set moves”, ways of keeping the cogs moving, changing from key to key, chord to chord, the elegant lines that outline the movements: this collection is a great place for students to start if they want to hear what they are learning at college put into action in the real world. Like all set moves, whether in sport, drama, oratory or military strategy anything, they exist in order to set up “The Surprise”, and this can be small or large….a line moving up instead of down or a sudden surge of dynamics or texture, the unexpected inclusion of a tune outside the repertoire you expect. The art of this kind of playing, for me, is to know how to keep the surprises coming, judge how far apart they should be and why they are happening, without losing the flow, wherever and whatever that is.
I’m not a big fan of solo piano, but I am a small one. I’m fussy, and others will find different areas of interest to mine. In the midst of all this similarity, the folklore of the Great American Songbook, what I liked most were the exceptions. Joanne Brackeen’s original compositions, extended structures full of contrasting grooves, Monty Alexander’s rendition of “Island In The Sun”, where space and softness allow the audience inside the deep groove that he cooks up, Jaki Byard’s bookending of the set with ominous chromaticisms…and Stanley Cowell’s original “I Am Waiting”, which even had me nodding my head along to the groove. There’s also some brilliant deconstruction of standards, Kenny Drew Jr barging into “Stella By Starlight” holding big Messiaen hammers in each hand, John Hicks almost out-budding Bud Powell on “Oblivion” and the strangely pointillistic approach of Jessica Williams on “Why Do I Love You?” and Roger Kellaway on “New Orleans”. But that’s moving towards the other aspect of this collection, and one which I think reveals a lot more.
The time and the touch, and how the mysterious synchronicity between the two forms what you could call “the sound” of each player. All those devices, those chords and structures and harmonic colourations, all these sit underneath the sound. Someone like Ralph Sutton, who on the face of it steers pretty close to his Fats Waller influence, somehow comes out sounding like himself…the contrasts happen under the bonnet as it were, clipped and long, loud and soft, to the point where the sound is driving the melody. Roland Hanna’s arresting phrases and voice leading come out of a sound that is flexible, unpredictable, uneven…..messy. On “Little B’s Poem”, George Cables returns again and again to the theme, slightly softer than you imagine, the same but different, just pulling back the dynamic so he doesn’t hit that metallic edge that Yamaha pianos can have. Gene Harris works the sustain pedal to get that bell-like sound (again from Bill Evans, but who studies that bit?)…Kenny Werner manages to keep “Autumn Leaves” warm and friendly despite the angles of his lines and accompaniment, and Fred Hersch invites us, in the slightly detached articulation of “Everything I Love”, to savour those specific intervals ready for the intricate counterpoint that forms around them. Some of the older players, like Walter Norris, Gerry Wiggins and Ellis Larkins seem almost to play the sound alone, the notes just being a convenient vessel in which to hold it.
There’s a certain sameness to many of these recordings, dictated no doubt by the room and the preferences of those who booked the musicians, but also by the history and the community around the music. For that reason, I would say the best way to listen is one album at a time, each at least a week apart, and maybe, if you can swing it, in a wood lined room with a big stained glass window at one end. It’s easy to miss the wood for the trees in this collection because, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s all a bit too close together to appreciate the details.
People worry about the language of jazz, the advancement of it, the preservation of it, the elimination of it. All the best music happens in any of these three states, and it’s always driven by the sound and the feel aligning themselves somehow. The style becomes irrelevant unless the music’s struggling to flow, that’s when we all start analysing “what it is”, when we start looking for the “new species” of tree, the “new thing” on the piano. It felt important to get through that, to go back and listen without thinking, and feel how the best of this music seems to flow freely out of the instrument. There’s a simple pleasure in that, whether in the concert hall or the hotel bar.