In 1980-81 I played jazz and classical piano in the bar of a Philadelphia restaurant called Frog, or “Frög” as the place’s logo would have it, with the umlaut and “o” supposedly suggesting the face of a frog. I played the late shift on Thursdays and Saturdays, playing, I think from about 8 until midnight or 1. Playing the early shift before me on Saturdays was Philly native Uri Caine, one of today’s leading jazz pianists. Although my bio says I have worked as a jazz musician, you may notice that it doesn’t claim I was any good at it, and this is in extremely marked contrast to Uri, who played the early shift so that he could go off to a more serious jazz gig after the restaurant job. I first knew Uri when he was an undergrad at Penn and I was a graduate student. Already at that point he had an uncanny command of an array of compositional styles, both jazz and classical, from all eras. When he played a piano piece he had created in response to a classroom assignment to write something in the style of, for example, Schumann, it was never quite clear how much he was improvising, so remarkable was his improvisational facility in classical idioms. It makes perfect sense that his best known music would become his work engaging classical pieces, such as his takes on Mahler and the Goldberg Variations. Uri would try to crack me up as I entered the restaurant by juxtaposing jazz and classical pieces – in the middle of a Cole Porter tune four bars of the Liebestod would suddenly appear, perfectly integrated – “I Get a Kick Out of You” indeed. This kind of facility and breadth also makes sense given that polystylistic composer George Rochberg was an important mentor for Uri.

I’ve been listening to a lot of solo piano recordings lately in connection with an upcoming project (about which more soon!), and the recordings have included jazz records, such as Uri’s 2002 release, Solitaire. While Uri can groove with the best, most of the pieces on this record don’t stay in one place long enough for this skill to be apparent. His imagination is too restless for him to play several choruses in the same general rhythmic feel. Sometimes the rapid-fire changes of tone put one in mind of John Zorn’s music, where the juxtapositions themselves carry expressive weight, as much as what is going on musically in each section. The piano attack tends toward the percussive – no Bill Evans influence apparent here. Sometimes the accompanying textures accumulate in waves of rhythmically irregular, nervous figures that do not suggest a pulse; other moments are clearly metrical, even evoking the gospel or down home feel that is one element of Keith Jarrett’s solo work. There are no genuine ballads here. On the other hand, there is what I take to be an improvisation on a twelve-tone row, (hey, it’s called “Twelve” after all), a set of apparently improvised variations on a twelve-tone row – stated baldly at first, then proceeding with increasingly shorter note values.

For comparison with Uri’s music, I pulled out Fred Hersch’s Songs Without Words, a three disc set on Nonesuch, and Jason Moran’s Modernistic. A superficial analysis would say that Hersch’s is the most traditional approach of the three – consistently rich harmonizations, no abrupt stylistic juxtapositions. But within that framework the work is fresh and highly original. Pointillistic textures that dart about the keyboard project Hersch’s rich harmonic palette in unexpected ways. “Caravan” is reconfigured as a sort of tango, with dissonances that are comparable to, but not identical with the alarming harmonic colors of the original. The aerated texture makes the acid colors more vivid. Hersch commands the most beautiful piano sound of the three artists. Debussy is part of his voice more than with Caine or Moran.

There is a big range of styles on Jason Moran’s Modernistic, and the pieces can sometimes break into a momentary freakout in a way that Caine sometimes does, but Hersch never does. Moran’s conception is unique in two ways: first, the use of special pianistic sonorities – sampled effects (Conversations With Myself for the 21st century) and a detuned (processed, I assume) instrument evoking a 1930s roadhouse keyboard – and second, the use of ostinato. It is a clever take on “Body and Soul” to focus on a repeated cadential progression rather the tricky harmony of the entire form. This is improvisation as simplification rather than elaboration – Holiday, not Fitzgerald.  An alternating hands gesture that would normally serve as a one bar fill in a piece like James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got to be Modernistic” becomes the momentary focus itself – as in his treatment of “Body and Soul”, a fleeting detail is extracted and expanded, with provocative formal implications. Moran is willing to use straightforward ostinato textures as a framework in ways that Hersch and Caine are not. My sense is that Moran can do anything he wants at the piano, but his virtuosity is, like that of Monk, more compositional than pianistic.

All three men offer the satisfying pleasure of hearing a musician thinking out loud.

I do think those of us who focus on notated music are being irresponsible if we overlook the music of improvising artists. 35 years ago, one of my undergraduate teachers would ask us to avoid what he called “cigarette chords” – chords one should only hear when smoking cigarettes, meaning, in a piano bar. I think he was trying to discourage a simplistic approach to the post-Debussy/Ravel harmony that informs a good deal of jazz practice. But now I wish my own students could write harmonies that are as colorful, varied, and elegantly shaped as what you can hear in the work of Caine, Hersch, Moran, and other jazz artists.

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