PIANO REFLECTIONS FROM 2021 AND BEYOND

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 23, 2022

SATOKO FUJII TRIO –THIS IS IT! – “MOSAIC” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet; Kashi Itani, drums/percussion.

Last year, Satoko Fujii released a solo album and her duet album.  This is the pianist’s first pandemic album recorded in real time.  Amazingly with one band member (Takashi Itani) 400 miles away in a Tokyo suburb and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura at home in Kobe, Japan.  Despite geographic and technical obstacles, this trio sounds as though they are all in the same studio location.

“This pandemic pushed me to find new ways to create that I have never tried before,” Ms. Fujii explained. 

Her attitude and success are not surprising.  She is the kind of artist who seems to thrive off of challenges and who leaps hurdles in a single bound, like the superwoman she is.  Satoko Fujii and her musicians would not be denied. 

“I can make music exchanging files online, but this trio plays spontaneous improvisation and needs the inspiration that we get when we play together.  So, we decided to record a session on the Internet,” she said.

However, Internet connections can sometimes delay transmissions of sound.  Satoko realized quickly that they would have to technically compensate for the time lapses.  So, she made specialized adjustments.  The trio opens with “Habana’s Dream” played fiercely and with Satoko Fujii reminding me somewhat of the great Cecil Taylor on piano.  Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet lines stitches in between the Avant-garde piano performance, like a tailor’s needle, improvising and colorfully matching the musical threads.  The busy and combustible drums of Kashi Itani crash and whisper; frolic and swing.  This first tune of five original compositions is over nine minutes of improvised excitement. The composition, “Dieser Zug” prompts Itani to pick up mallets and walk over to his vibraphone.  The percussionist takes his time, unfolding rich, ringing tones, sweet as Indonesian angklungs or Kobe cow bells. Tamura’s rich orange trumpet tone rises in the background, in my mind like a sunrise.  Although quite successful, Satoko Fujii discussed the challenges of this project in her press package.

“If we play in the same room, listening is as natural as breathing.  I’m almost unaware that I’m doing it.  But on the Internet, it was not like breathing.  My ears worked like listening carefully to another language.  It required a little extra effort, but we found we could make music in this way,” Satoko summarized.

Regardless of the obstacle course this trio travelled, they proudly present us an Avant-garde package of brilliance.  Satoko Fujii is a creative and introspective composer.  In 2020, she became recipient of the ‘Instant Award in Improvised Music’ to recognize her artistic intelligence, her independence and integrity.  You will hear all of this on her current recording with the magic and majesty of her two musical partners. Her trio says it all with their name; ‘This Is It!’

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DAVE MEDER – “UNAMUNO SONGS AND STORIES” – Outside In Music

Dave Meder, piano/vocals; Marty Jaffe, bass; Michael Piolet, drums; Philip Dizack, trumpet; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone.

We all had plenty of time to ourselves in 2021, to think about life, death, love and politics.  Dave Meder uses this recording as a musical response to recent sociopolitical turmoil in the United States.  His unusual and unexpected tempo-changing-arrangements and his original compositions are meant to reflect life with themes of hope, love and peace; but also to raise awareness of the growing threats to our cherished American democracy.

“It feels as though we are at a societal breaking point.  Increasingly, our political discourse pits factually justified positions against pure misinformation, and independently verifiable truth against ‘personal truth.’ It forces us into tribes, so that pride and ego prevent us from evolving in our own understanding of the world,” Dave Meder wrote in his press package.

His recording opens with Meder’s original composition, “Song of Secret Love.”  His quintet plays it with gusto, after Meder opens the arrangement quietly, with his piano trio using a whisper of drums to brush the tempo into place. Marty Jaffe steps stage center on double bass and offers a provocative solo.  Meder’s piano accompaniment is painted in classical colors and quite melodic.  It’s a peaceful, quiet way to begin this musical protest package. 

I wondered about the title of Dave Meder’s project.  Who was Unamuno?  Meder explains, he found himself drawn to Unamuno’s writings during the pandemic and current, political climate in our country.  Turns out, Miguel de Unamuno was a complex political figure and a Basque/Spanish philosopher, poet, novelist, essayist and educator.  He was best celebrated for his work in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War and he lived from 1864 to 1936.   

Admittedly, Meder has composed nine songs based (not only on Unamuno’s philosophy) but on jazz tradition, Bach chorales, blues and Dave is highly influenced by the piano work of Spanish composer, Isaac Albeniz.  Track #2 is titled “Augusto’s Dilemma” and sounds heavily influenced by Thelonious Monk and the blues. “Meditation: Doubt” is Track #3 and propelled by the flying fingers and arpeggio runs of Dave Meder, tinkling up and down the keyboard like a bouncing teeter-totter.  It’s less than a minute long and then bleeds into the fourth cut, “I Look for Religion in War.” This composition reflects more modernistic jazz and Michael Piolet lends hefty support on trap drums as the crescendos build.  Philip Dizack enters on his trumpet and the piece turns Avant-garde.  Soon, the arrangement morphs into a sultry, very pretty ballad with hymnal-like changes.  Marty Jaffe bows his bass and Meder caresses the eighty-eight keys in tender ways.  This arrangement actually seems to move from war to peace.  The one of two cover tunes that Meder and group recorded is the beautiful standard, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”  Dave Meder’s rendition is lovely.  His piano playing is almost harp-like at the start and the ending of this tune, with appropriate support from bassist, Marty Jaffe and drummer, Michael Piolet.  The other cover tune is Roland Hanna’s “Century Rag” and is unexpectedly Latin influenced.  The arrangement is as unique as the cover of this CD designed by Adrien H. Tillmann.  I applaud music artists who seek to match their musical art with cover material as imaginative, creative and captivating as their music. Hands shaped to make a face, inclusive of glasses and the blooming of a beard on the lower part of a thumb joint reflects like shadow hand shapes on the wall.  This album cover gives us a very creative look into the artist himself and what’s important to him.  His senses; sight, smell, taste; and his hands for playing piano and touching us both creatively and spiritually.

Dave Meder is a recent recipient of the prestigious Fulbright US Scholar Award for Visual and Performing Arts, which will bring him to Egypt as a guest artists and lecturer in 2022.

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OSCAR HERNANDEZ & ALMA LIBRE – “VISION” – Ovation Records

Oscar Hernandez, piano; Justo Almario, saxophone/flute; Jimmy Branly, drums; Oskar Cartaya, bass; Christian Moraga, congas/percussion.

Decorated pianist, composer, Grammy winner and arranger, Oscar Hernandez is a bona fide Latin music legend. Like so many musicians, the preparation for this recording was created during the worldwide pandemic shutdown.

“The creative process was in full force during that time.  Recording this album was a way to react positively and to counteract the negative circumstances surrounding the pandemic,” Oscar expressed.

In May of 2021, Oscar Hernandez and his Los Angeles based ensemble called ‘Alma Libre’ began to record this “Vision” album.  The title tune opens energetically with a strong melody.  It is one of ten tunes Oscar Hernandez composed for this recording.  Oscar described the inspiration for composing his original composition, “Vision.” 

“When I was young, I was taught by my family that you need to have a vision to accomplish things.  I believe that if you see it and you believe it, you can achieve it,” Oscar asserts.

Hernandez is perhaps best known to modern audiences as the leader and producer of the highly acclaimed, award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  They are a 13-piece all-star, salsa, big band, and under his tutelage they have gone on to win three GRAMMY Awards and release eight critically acclaimed albums.  I am certain this release will follow in those same footsteps.  Oscar first recorded with the Alma Libre ensemble in 2016 when they released their debut CD “The Art of Latin Jazz.”  One of the things I enjoy about the composition talents and bandleader skills of Oscar Hernandez is his sophisticated harmonies, infectious melodies and raw, cultural rhythms.  His “Chick Forever” tune is dedicated to the genius of Chick Corea.  As soon as you hear the melody, you want to hum along.  That is one of the traits of a great songwriter.  Justo Almario steps into the spotlight and offers us a brilliant saxophone solo. Then Oscar Hernandez blows in on the eighty-eight keys, breezing over the piano with energy and precision.  Jimmy Branly brandishes his drum power and Oskar Cartaya plays a joyful bass solo.  Throughout this arrangement, Oscar manages to weave in spicy pieces of the familiar ‘breaks’ from “Spain,” one of many Chick Corea hit records. 

Oscar Hernandez dazzles us with his piano excellence, his composer talents, his arrangements and his leadership.  Alma Libre is a tight ensemble made up of some of the crème de la crème of musicianship.  They accelerate and infuse Oscar Hernandez’s music and arrangements in the best possible way.  You will want to play this album over and over again.  I did!

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FRED HERSCH – “BREATH BY BREATH” – Palmetto Records

Fred Hersch, piano/composer; Drew Gress, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion; Crosby Street String Quartet: Joyce Hammann & Laura Seaton, violins; Lois Martin, viola; Jody Redhage Ferber, cello.

This is the first recording that the iconic Fred Hersch has produced with a string quartet and all the music on this project celebrates his original compositions.  Hersch says that he has drawn inspiration from his long-time, mindful meditation.  The Crosby Street String Quartet, named for the New York City address where they first rehearsed with Fred Hersch, is comprised of four very busy freelance string players; violinists, Joyce Hammann & Laura Seaton; Lois Martin on viola and Jody Redhage Ferber on cello.

“String quartets have been some of my favorite music to listen to my whole life. I grew up listening to string quartets as a very young musician in Cincinnati. My piano teacher was the wife of the cellist in the famous LaSalle Quartet. I used to lie on the rug in their living room, as an elementary school student while they rehearsed, quietly following along, hearing how the viola part meshed with the first violin, or the second violin and the cello.  Ever since I started studying composition at age eight, almost all of my music has always focused on four melodic parts.  So, string quartets are a natural musical configuration for me,” Hersch exudes excitement just talking about it.

Fred Hersch says his meditation practice saved him during the pandemic’s long, locked-down days.  The first movement on this recording is symbolic of our new year and is simply titled “Begin Again.”  It references the cycle of renewal and his arrangement begins with the piano sounding like a ticking clock or swinging pendulum.  It has a mild Latin rhythm perpetrated by Jochen Rueckert’s drums.  The Hersch piano line pirouettes above the rhythm section, while the string section trembles and sways beneath it.  When Hersch steps out solo, playing his piano singularly, he is soaked in classical waters.  The title tune, “Breath by Breath” has a heartbeat played by the bass that is infectious. We are rewarded when Drew Gress steps out-front and offers his lovely bass solo.  This Hersch composition quickly becomes one of my favorites.  The sweeping strings are featured also, encircling the bass that pulsates beneath their beauty like a living, breathing individual.  Each composition offers a mood for the music to gobble up and improvise upon.  On track #4, Hersch’s piano has a long conversation with the plucking, staccato strings, as though the instruments are engaged in trading fours or having a musical debate. This is followed by another of my favorites, “Rising, Falling” that’s a beautiful ballad and reminds me of a garden full of birds nesting, with tree leaves rustling like the string instruments do.  All in all, this is a peaceful production that provides a platform for Fred Hersch to share his influential creative talents and fulfills his lifelong obsession to incorporate a string quartet into his production.

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GRANT RICHARDS – “BALLYHOO” – Grant Richards Music

Grant Richards, piano/keyboards/composer/arranger; Damian Erskine, electric bass; Reinhardt Melz, drums/percussion; Carmelo Torres, congas/percussion.

Grant Richards, once known as a pianist deeply immersed in bebop and blues, has taken a new direction.  This recording called “Ballyhoo” is an Afro-Cuban celebration and features his special guest percussionist, Carmelo Torres.  Grant’s other players, who comprise his rhythm section, are longtime friends and members of his trio for the past decade.  For several years, Grant Richards had longed to produce an album that celebrated Afro-Cuban music.  The Pandemic of 2020 gave him time to begin composing for just such a recording.  Then he and his group began rehearsing the new music.

“Being able to rehearse these tunes together was the thing that helped me get through 2020,” Grant Richards shared.

Richards was born in Portland, Oregon and surprisingly, recorded his first album as a leader at age fourteen.  It was comprised entirely of his own compositions and he did all the arranging.  Before being accepted in college, Downbeat Magazine had already honored him with prestigious Student Music Awards including Best Solo Instrumentalist; Best Jazz Arrangement and Best High School Arrangement.  That was back in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  In 2009, Grant Richards enrolled in Berklee College of Music. Later, he accepted a teaching position at an international music school in Tokyo, Japan for two and a half years.  Now, back in NYC, Richards, who was always drawn to the grooves and excitement of Afro-Cuban music, decided to challenge himself.  He set out to compose songs that would embrace Afro-Cuban arrangements.  Richards is a big fan of Eddie Palmieri and Danilo Perez.  “Bonenkai” opens his CD with energy and great input from the percussionist.  On the title tune, “Ballyhoo” you hear joyfulness as the celebratory music bounces and rolls around the room.  Richards and his musicians bring a collective groove to this arrangement, along with his special guest percussionist, Carmelo Torres.

They keep the easy-going, Latin groove on track #4, “The Bloom,” but their arrangement lacks the spice and flavor of “Ballyhoo” or “Bonenkai.”  The ballad “Elizabeth” is absolutely beautiful and becomes another one of my favorites of this production.  We are back to groove-city on the “Portmanteau” composition.  It starts out like a slow rubato and quickly changes pace, spurred by the congas of Carmelo and Grant Richards supplying dynamic piano energy.  Damian Erskine is ever-present and supportive on electric bass, locking in with Reinhardt Melz on drums.  Track #7 starts out with all percussion and the surprise is when the Thelonious Monk composition comes bursting out the gate like a Cuban racehorse.  It’s “Bye-ya” arranged in a total Afro-Cuban way.  I love it!  This is followed by four suites of music written for bass, and an original called “Space,” that employs synthesized effects to tease our perception of the universe.  Grant Richards and his ensemble close with the popular, “Secret Love” tune, played in a very afro-Cuban way that’s pleasing to the ear.  Its up-tempo flavor is propelled by creative, percussive inspiration.  At the fade, the drums take over and dance their way home.

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PETE MALINVERNI PLAYS LEONARD BERNSTEIN – “ON THE TOWN” – Planet Arts

Pete Malinverni, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Often times on the path of life, we encounter a person or experience an unexpected meeting or opportunity that influences our direction deeply.  It was several years ago, when a young pianist named Pete Malinverni was working one of those ritzy New York restaurant gigs playing solo piano.  He was informed that on the following night a bevy of opera buffs would be gathering at the club and management asked Pete to entertain them by playing arias on that evening.  So, on the following opening night, there he sat at the club during a cast party for Franco Zeffirelli’s production “Tosca.” Many celebrities were in attendance, but when Pete Malinverni saw Leonard Bernstein stride into the room, he was star-struck.  Malinverni, a huge Bernstein fan, immediately broke into Bernstein’s tune, “Lucky To Be Me.”  That tune was like a rainbow that stretched across the room and drew Mr. Bernstein to the pianist, sitting at his pot of gold and celebrating Bernstein’s music.  That momentous meeting is one that would change Pete’s life forever.  This project has been simmering in Malinverni’s gut ever since.   During his piano performance, he and Leonard Bernstein chatted about music and life all that evening.  The young, solo pianist was astounded at how down-to-earth and accessible the great composer was and they quickly established that both Pete Malinverni and Leonard Bernstein shared a deep love for New York.  You clearly hear that love shimmering like gold dust throughout these original arrangements of Bernstein’s music. 

Pete Malinverni is joined by the creative Ugonna Okegwo on bass and the expert drumming of Jeff Hamilton.  Togther, this trio unravels the music of Leonard Bernstein like a banner across the sky. 

“…this music really took on a life of its own,” Pete Malinverni commented in the press package.

“Ugonna Okegwo and Jeff Hamilton are real artists.  You know, if you go scuba diving you discover that there are just as many colors underwater, but the spectrum is the reverse of what you see up here on the surface.  I found that in playing Bernstein’s music with these amazing musicians, there were all these textures and colors underneath the music that they could really bring to light.”

Pete has recorded fourteen albums as a bandleader.  He loves playing trio, but has also recorded solo piano, quartet, quintet, big band and in the choral context.  Currently, Pete Malinverni serves as Head of Jazz Studies at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, State University of New York.  This current album tribute to Leonard Bernstein was released January 14, 2022.

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MATHIS PICARD – “LIVE AT THE MUSEUM”  Inside Out Music

Mathis Picard, solo piano/composer.

Mathis Picard offers an album of solo piano featuring classical music, standard jazz tunes and original compositions.  He was performing ‘Live’ at the National jazz Museum of Harlem and opens with John Lewis’s composition, “The Creation of the World.”  This is followed by “Cuttin’ Out” composed by Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith.  Picard’s arrangement delves into stride piano references and prominently displays the pianist’s busy, rhythmic left hand.  Clearly, Mr. Picard is a gifted pianist with stellar classical training and a creative mind.  This, his second album release, honors the works of the great classical and jazz composers who were influential to Picard’s personal musical journey.  I was looking forward to his composer skills.  The first I heard was “Earthalude,” followed by another original titled, “Snake Song.”  I did not find either melody memorable, although Mathis Picard did lay down a very full-sounding, solo piano track in support of his original arrangements.  Still, there was no prominent melody.  I did enjoy his original song, “Like, Blue.” 

His arrangement of “Leia’s Theme” by John Williams is beautifully played and the melody is stunning.  Consequently, I might lean more towards Mathis Picard’s talents as a gifted pianist and a developing composer.

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One Response to “PIANO REFLECTIONS FROM 2021 AND BEYOND”

  1. REVIEW: Piano Recordings From Dave Meder, Grant Richards, Mathis Picard & Oscar Hernández - Musical Memoirs - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

    […] by Dee Dee McNeil, Musical Memoirs […]

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