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JAZZ | Spotlight

When Piano Is One's Forte

May 30, 1999|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz critic

The piano's capacity to serve as a virtual orchestra in itself makes it a particularly appropriate instrument for the spontaneous invention at the heart of jazz. It would be hard to imagine a more expressive voice for the music; the piano has been used to produce sounds that, over the course of the jazz century, range from stride and boogie to bop and avant-garde, with dozens of stops in between.

A rush of new recordings arriving this month underscores that diversity, spanning a remarkably wide creative spectrum. Interestingly, all have classical references, and there is a direct linkage between two of the albums, both from European-born performers--Jacky Terrasson and Jacques Loussier--who have elected to include their own jazz-based renderings of Ravel's "Bolero."

Terrasson's interpretation, the climactic track on his "What It Is" (** 1/2, Blue Note), is relatively brief, a quick snapshot of the familiar theme, enhanced with unexpected dissonances and bits and pieces of improvisation. Its presence, however, is indicative of the album's somewhat unsettled quality. Except for an equally surprising version of Pink Floyd's "Money," the program consists entirely of Terrasson's pieces, performed by a number of ensembles. The result is an uneven assemblage, obviously intended to showcase the pianist's composition skills, but in doing so rarely allowing his shining improvisational imagination to break through. The best tracks are those in which he works with guitarist Adam Rogers and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, each of whom produces a challenge that triggers a few moments of creative illumination from Terrasson.

Loussier, unlike Terrasson, has had a long history of making jazz excursions through classical landmarks. His "Play Bach" series in the early '60s met with considerable commercial (if not much critical) success, and more recently (in 1997) he tried his hand at Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." On "Ravel's Bolero" (***, Telarc), Loussier's piano trio version (with bassist Benoit Dunoyer De Segonzac and drummer Andre Arpino) runs more than 17 minutes, and pays considerable attention to the slow but inexorable emotional buildup that is essential to the piece. The balance of the recording, devoted to "Nympheas," a seven-movement work inspired by Monet's famous waterlily paintings, is just as compelling. Loussier is an articulate player, and Arpino's resourceful drumming adds a major creative element to a musical mix invigorated by the many harmonic associations between jazz and French Impressionism.

Fred Hersch is another pianist with a firm classical grounding. His much-honored solo performances are revelatory blendings of precise technique, a surging swing and a sly musical sense of humor. "Let Yourself Go" (*** 1/2, Nonesuch) was recorded in October 1998 at a concert in Boston's Jordan Hall. Unlike his previous solo outings, which focused on individual songwriters' songbooks, this one ranges from Irving Berlin (the title track) to Thelonious Monk ("Blue Monk"). Hersch also cunningly blends the folk theme "Black Is the Color" with Alex North's "Love Theme From Spartacus," drives through "Speak Low," and delineates "The Nearness of You" as a subtle harmonic cameo. There isn't a false note--technically or emotionally--in the album, a tribute to Hersch's unerring ability to play music that is as intelligent as it is touching, as virtuosic as it is swinging.

All those elements are present--if in completely different stylistic fashion--in the music of veteran Cuban pianist-bandleader Chucho Valdes. And there's a kind of classical connection as well in his "Briyumba Palo Congo (Religion of the Congo)" (*** 1/2, Blue Note) via his totally off-the-wall danzon/cha-cha-cha interpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue." But that's only one element in this far-reaching collection. The title track, for example, is filled with lush chording reminiscent of McCoy Tyner (whom Valdes describes as a primary influence), Dizzy Gillespie-like scatting and anthemic, African-style singing. "Embraceable You" emerges as a darkly rhapsodic bolero and, on "Ponle La Clave," Valdes uncoils a solo that finds a way to superimpose a boppish feeling over the rhythm's complex subdivisions of the essential clave rhythm. The album (available June 8), in sum, is an artistic tour de force, more pianistic than some of Valdes' previous albums, and a stunning example of his extraordinary musical mastery.*

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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