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Grand piano 

I love sharing the piano bench with my daughter. Yesterday she was gleefully draped around her brand new Yamaha synthesizer when I arrived in the den. I couldn't help but laugh. She was demonstrating a dozen of the cool 248 digital voices the machine can spit out at the touch of a button.

With a contorted monster-face, she pumped a little funeral dirge with "Gothic Organ," No. 146. "Hey, it's The Munsters," she said with a ghoulish wink.

"Any requests?" she offered.

"Call up No. 001," I suggested, taking the bait. Dana conjured up Grand Piano--digitized with a metallic edge, of course, but close enough. With a playful smirk, she nonchalantly plunked out "Heart and Soul," the dreaded warhorse theme that piano students have agonized over since Adam and Eve's first date.

That was Dana's way of saying to me: "You're so old-school, Dad." She was certain I would want to hear Grand Piano, because these days nobody else likes the sound of the piano any more.

Outside of the area's FM nonprofits banished to the left end of the dial, there's rarely bona fide piano on the radio. I occasionally trip across some sampled piano--you know, a few token tink-a-tinks ripped-off and processed beyond recognition to spice up an otherwise innocuous dance-track. But samples and synths only leave me jonesing like a mutha'. What I crave is a real piano--with notes ringing endlessly inside an exquisite big black box.

Piano withdrawal makes me do weird things. My wife and kids laugh when I get all jacked up as G105 spins a crusty old Elton John record. They know I hate Elton John, but I relish hearing his piano.

Or even Ben Folds' piano. I shamelessly hopped aboard the ever-popular BF5 bandwagon several years ago for one reason. Actually, 88 reasons. I embraced the luxurious tone of every frickin' key of his Baldwin or Bosendorfer or whatever brand of piano Gentle Ben endorses.

Perhaps in self-defense, I always come home to jazz, where piano playing remains the music's lingua franca. Jazz is a pianistic safe haven, a sacred place where the ghost of the late Art Tatum, the penultimate virtuoso, hovers over the scene and screams: "Play that damn piano--and play it right."

Unafraid of the high standards set by Tatum and other great ivory-hunters of the past, a legion of enterprising jazz pianists are currently figuring out new ways to finger the piano. Below, you'll read about four of them, kings and queens of the royal keyboard. I want to thank them for simply saving my life.

Joanne Brackeen
Popsicle Illusion (Arkadia Jazz CD)
The rich tradition of parlor-room piano continues on this mercurial solo disc by one of jazz's unsung heroes. Unlike lesser players, Brackeen motors comfortably along sans bass and drums because of a churning left hand, the key to her turn-on-a-dime technique. Listen as she deftly pops the sonic clutch, shifting from old-school stride to modern-sounding, jagged chord fragments. Even the ballads--here, typified by Paul McCartney's "Michelle"--bristle with eight-cylinder propulsion.

Think of a style--and Brackeen can play it. Jazz Lit 101 (Ellington and Gershwin). Odd-metered mazes lined with finger-traps ("If I Were a Bell"). And 'natch, da blooze ("Knickerbocker Blues," an original), all dressed up and ready to paint the town.

After Popsicle, you'll want to taste Brackeen live. Gobble up her Durham show at Baldwin Auditorium on Friday, Nov. 17, when she fronts the Duke Jazz Ensemble. For dessert, I'm betting she'll take a delicious turn at the 88s--alone.

Frank Kimbrough
Noumena (Soul Note CD)
Kimbrough lifted the title from On the Road, where Kerouac theorized that "noumena is what you see with your eyes closed." However, according to this innovative, Roxboro-born pianist, Noumena is more like what you hear--with ears wide open.

Listen closely, friends, because Noumena is tippy-toe music, quiet as a church mouse. This daringly introspective album features an improvising chamber quartet--keys, saxophone, electric guitar and drums--that hangs meat on the skeletons of Kimbrough's minimalist compositions. The songs provide structure and suggest mood; the band does the rest.

And what a band. Like fellow guitarist Bill Frisell, Ben Monder coaxes tenderness from the electric six-string. Anybody with a fuzz box can blare. Monder instead fingerpicks cinematically, even Bergman-like, re: Cries and Whispers. Eschewing pyrotechnics, drummer Tony Moreno creates a sort of percussive haiku by softly stroking skins and cymbals. Scott Robinson, blowing bass and tenor saxes, weaves in and out, completing the moody mesh that holds the music together. Precious fabric.

My favorite cut, the CD's lone light moment, suggests a sunny but angular melody Kimbrough concocted while thinking about composer Thelonious Monk, another North Carolina native. "The Spins" makes one left turn after another, prodded by eccentric sax and stutterstep piano. Like a happy but wobbling drunk guided by some invisible hand, "The Spins" reaches its destination safe and sound.

Matthew Shipp Quartet
Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear CD)
Fresh from a self-imposed sabbatical from recording, 39-year-old Shipp has emerged as pianist-of-choice on the international New Improv scene. Shipp's calling card is a frisky approach to the keys, at times recalling the godfather of untethered free-jazz piano, Cecil Taylor. Like Taylor, Shipp often unleashes stop-start clusters of notes that buzz like a ball of mad hornets. Yet he can also play tenderly, with reflexes poised to follow the music wherever it may go. The more exotic the destination, the better.

Surprise: Shipp's latest disc is the most conventional entry in his edgy discography. Pastoral Composure, in fact, behaves less like a foreshadowing of the shape of jazz to come than an old-fashioned '50s-style blowing session pairing a surging rhythm section and turbulent solos.

Perhaps Shipp, a quiet leader but chatty accompanist, arranged this quartet gig as a coming-out party for his featured instrumentalist, a trumpeter. Blowing hefty lungfuls of air, trumpeter Roy Campbell entertains with high-wire trills and smears--à la the late Lester Bowie, another trumpeter with circus tendencies. Meanwhile, outside the center-ring, Shipp happily marches in cerebral lockstep with his fave sectionmate, bassist William Parker.

One quibble: PC's ambient recording technique nearly sinks Shipp, who sounds like he's serenading an empty tool shed. His rousing piano deserves better than one-dimensional audio verité.

Rachel Z Trio
On the Milky Way Express (Tone Center CD)
Among jazz connoisseurs, the composer du jour is Wayne Shorter, the diminutive saxophonist toting a hefty songbook dating back to the '50s. First as the musical director for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, later a bandmate of Miles Davis and finally as co-pilot of Weather Report, the sleek fusion outfit, Shorter has inked songs of every stripe.

The Shorter files contain confounding tomes with a chord-change per nanosecond, as well as freefalling abstractions stripped of any discernible harmony. He's also authored proto-R&B tied to serpentine bass lines and melancholy ballads that melt the heart. With the possible exception of Ellington, no composer within the jazz idiom has charted so much music in so many diverse ways.

Shorter's orchestrator on the 1995 Grammy-winning CD High Life (Verve), pianist Rachel Z (née: Nicolazzo), toasts her ex-boss on Milky Way, a jeweled scepter raised in tribute to an American original. Sparked by her juggernaut working band of bassist Miriam Sullivan and drummer Allison Miller, Z revisits 11 Shorter tunes, all important signposts along Weird Wayne's long, strange trip.

"Children of the Night" is 40 years old. "Delores," inspired by the lilting speech of a family babysitter, is rescued from the Davis era. The title cut is space-age Wayne, a spiraling jet-trail of melody superimposed on clouds of funk.

As a pianist, Z fingers exuberant clusters of notes. Yet, wisely, she refuses to fill up the grooves, allowing cracks for her rhythm section to bubble to the surface. While Z's left hand spars playfully with Sullivan's staccato bass, the right counterpunches with cymbals and snare. Sullivan's chattering drums resound, recalling the tidal wave of clicks and pops unleashed by Tony Williams, the late drummer in Miles Davis' classic quintet of the '60s.

Maybe that was Z's plan all along: to rekindle the fire created by one of jazz's greatest combos, once upon a time. If so, she has succeeded. As this disc confirms, Shorter's combustible stuff remains hotter than a devil's handshake. EndBlock

More by Joe Vanderford


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