Jacky Terrasson hit jazz at full speed in the mid-1990s. He won the Thelonious Monk jazz piano competition in 1993 and quickly signed with Blue Note, making a series of recordings and club appearances that galvanized many listeners. His approach was often to utterly remake standard material and present original songs that, while never avant-garde or extreme in approach, had a jarring or awakening quality. This was traditional post-bop jazz that felt new nevertheless. Terrasson’s drummer at the time, Leon Parker, used an unusually stripped-down kit, and so too did Terrasson’s piano seem unconventional and different.
Over time, the novelty of Terrasson’s oddball mainstream-ism wore thin. His 1997 duet album with singer Cassandra Wilson promised to unite two fresh thinkers for an intimate major label outing, but it was a crashing disappointment. After that, though live performances could still take off, Terrasson seemed to have run out of juice. Smile, from 2003, was his last recording, and it confirmed the sense that Terrasson—a player of seemingly startling gifts—was somehow barking up the wrong tree. Years of silence followed. Was he out of ideas? Had folks’ judgment about him at the start simply been wrong? Or were our collective expectations just too high?
Now arrives Jacky Terrasson’s first solo piano recording, a disc recorded in New York at the end of 2006 after a four-year-plus stretch of studio inactivity. Does this disc answer the key questions about Terrasson?
Not really. Mirror, by its title, suggests a period of significant reflection. And what better forum for self-examination than a solo recital? The program is interestingly varied: four standards, one modern pop song, five originals, and one patriotic staple. Hmmmmm. Which Jacky Terrasson emerges: the willfully peculiar arranger or the startlingly fresh voice from inside the tradition?
Mirror suggests that these two Terrassons are the same guy, a jazz artist whose strengths and weaknesses are bound up together. As usual, the standards are turned inside out by arrangement. The innovations, however, are not usually ones of expanded harmony or freedom. Terrasson prefers to play with structure. “Cherokee”, for example, starts with nearly two minutes of Bud Powell-ish improvising over the changes before the melody of the bridge is stated in lurching fragments. The section that follows generates huge rhythmic tension through repetition, leading to the A-section melody on the end. It’s a high-wire stunt that some will find thrilling but that perhaps thrills more than it pleases or illuminates. “Just a Gigolo” seems more intentionally witty—an off-balance statement of melody hat suggests a Monk-ian drunkenness. “Everything Happens to Me” is played as a weirdly flat ballad built on a near pedal-tone of harmonic similarity. None of these versions is rich or complex, but each has a kind of attitude.
Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, perhaps inevitably, fares least well. Terrasson conjures a Phillip Glass-ish introduction that becomes the song’s ground rhythm. The melody (which, at least in the New Jersey of the 1970s, accompanied so many high school break-ups) feels secondary to the nodding groove of the accompaniment, adding up to a kind of minor-mode wallpaper. The surprise success, on the other hand, is a crazy reworking of “America, the Beautiful”. Terrasson treats the familiar melody with childlike simplicity while also reharmonizing it. His command of the overtones of the piano here is superb, and the oddball quality of the “outside” notes feels deeply under control. The anthem becomes redemption as it moves from minor to ecstatic major, just the kind of thing America needs these days. The summary of all this is that Terrasson’s risks are considerable, but the reward is spotty.
In the five originals, Terrasson faces the real test. Thankfully, they are more direct in their intention and execution. “Juvenile” is a gentle waltz that begins in an unexpected place, with Terrasson improvising with spice over two off-balance chords. Then it states a lovely, elegiac melody that works its way around to a smile. “Little Red Ribbon” is a stop-start workout that never pushes too hard. A few of the originals feel like miniatures that might have gone further. “Mirror” begins with a ruminative section that bleeds into an intricate theme. It seems slightly glib, moving too easily from section to section. “Tragic Mulatto Blues” is, well, a decent blues, and “Go Round” is a lacy bit of atmosphere. All are underdeveloped. Terrasson is not the Keith Jarrett-type, but a slower, grander build-up would be in order—a path toward intensity rather than a shortcut.
What Jacky Terrasson has always had is a delicate, striking touch at the piano and a gift for non-clichéd melodic invention. Playing solo, his spark is obvious on certain songs. But a solo set also opens Terrasson to proper critique. His ideas too often have a perversity about them. It’s up to you to decide whether the quirkiest straight-ahead pianist in jazz is your cup of tea. After nearly five years of hiatus, I suspect that Terrasson himself is aware that this is a moment of some judgment.
I’d say that the jury remains out on the mercurial and sometimes thrilling Jacky Terrasson.