Trio headed by drummer. Melodic instruments? Well, there’s the leader doing the nearly impossible, delivering the theme of the Charlie Parker—Dizzy Gillespie “Anthropology” on tuned drums. The straight-up bebop thing can be done, but with so at times classification-resistant and jazz-expert a pianist as Michel Pilc much more is possible. Much more does happen, usually of a high order, though eventually so much as to be in danger of exhausting the listener.
Pilc can of course seem to unbutton each hand at the wrist, and let it take its own way across the keyboard, always coming back when needed to work with the other. I like the quote from “Rhythm-a-Ning”, and the one from the old tune “Dardanella” which seems to set the bassist off on a double-time lick.
The bassist opens “Dark News” with bowed passage, Pilc comes in to establish a moody gloom of the very sort some current pianists can maintain with appalling stamina. He’s not self-engrossed, though, and once the dark’s been registered, he comes along with sympathy and tenderness. While staying in the same key for any length of time doesn’t come easily, he maintains ensemble policy of never straying into ugliness. “Rapscallion Cattle” (don’t ask me what this name means) is further elevated by a visiting saxophonist whom the publicity material identifies as “tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwartz-Bart.” Whatever his horn, and I’d say it was an alto saxophone, the stunningly impressive JS-B plainly shares the not unreasonable consensus that there are times when it is right to play balladically, times to go uptempo and stomp, and times to switch between ballad and stomp. There are even times when each member of the band is playing at a different tempo. They never lose each other, and however thin the surface they skate on, none of them ever slips into dissonance. Not one nasty noise, even in the wilds of an extended alto solo.
On “WB Blues” and “Falling in Love with Love”, familiarity with the blues format and with the show tune allow a clearer awareness of what’s going on. The bassist begins the item called blues with something so fragmented, you can’t tell what it is. Then there’s a re-echoed figure on tuned drums and Pilc comes in, more and more consolidating aspects of a 12-bar blues, which he takes up with harmonically complex development of unusual intervals, with walking bass. The unequivocal blues statement comes at the end, on tuned drums. “Falling in Love with Love” proceeds with recognisable fragments of the tune amid an improvisation which seems to be playing around on the verge of being drawn into a force-field; feel the pull of some gravitational power, which now and then produces recognisable snatches of the original melody, the largest fragments of which are the final bars of the tune. The performance ends with a delivery of those last bars, as if eveybody was finally ready to play them after Pilc’s ventures in radical reharmonisation.
“Farewell” is like a jazz ballad which keeps turning into some of the more massive of Debussy’s piano works, but by the third last title, “Without Within” and the saxophone’s return, it’s clear that this is music to get carried away with, challenging and ambitious on a CD which might just deserve some criticism for its failure to offer the occasional little breathing space. The great pianist Arthur Schnabel famously reflected on his refusal to play little crowd-pleasers, saying that his concerts were therefore boring all the way through. It’s more a certain variety I would have liked from these very-far-from bores. Not, please, the lightweight or slightweight which keeps coming back by the empty albumful. I liked “Newfound Innocence”, not least for the bassist’s great sensitivity of tone and phrasing, and I suppose some of the breathing spaces I would have liked could have been similar to the closer, a hymn tune on solo tuned drums with presumably Hoenig all on his own after a couple of percussion choruses singing off-mike the chorus of the old hymn “This Little Light of Mine.” Anyway, this set made me sit up!