[15 January 2004]
The first aspect that you notice about pianist/composer Chris Gestrin on the album Stillpoint is that he likes to play with the aesthetics of sound and that, for him, music is about craftsmanship. His influences are wide-ranging, from the likes of Chick Corea and Miles Davis to Dmitri Shostakovich, but the applications of their influences to his music are understated, morphed behind the conceptualization of avant-garde jazz. There’s such a feeling of unquiet about the album that one could very easily disengage from it before realizing its depth. The music explores space, tranquility, time, and distance using traditional jazz instrumentation and sampled sounds. To some, this will be just another one of those pretentious modern music albums, a series of random notes thrown together and mixed in a pot, without realizing that there are subtle structural elements connecting the framework. At only 29, Gestrin’s music already possesses a sense of maturity, exemplified by his ability to flesh out original musical ideas by employing a slew of compositional devices with an obvious thoughtfulness. The exhilarating part is that the music is not written out in its entirety. There is a sense of rawness to the music, the kind that is only associated with free improvisational jazz.
The title and opening track is atmospheric, where Gestrin draws on an acute sense of space and harmonic overtones to produce an impressionist statement with short, repetitive piano statements initially segmented by cymbals. It builds to a moderate crescendo as piano and percussion lines intertwine. The next track, “Never Summer Range”, has an altogether fuller sound, with a piano pedal as the backbone. Beginning with an aural wash of shimmering cymbals and musings on bass, the piano enters with a theatrical arpeggiated pedal. The saxophone follows with a sweet melody reminiscent of the late Miles Davis. The piece builds as the music segues to a drum and cymbal interlude before departing into another interlude driven by a five chord piano pedal with improvised saxophone that leads to a relentless and intense climax. The piano is uncompromising in the background, while the saxophone on top struggles to break away, squealing like a strangled pig.
Gestrin’s background is in film composition (he’s a graduate of the Berklee College of Music), and at times this is apparent on the album. While his music can, for the most part, wholly engage your attention, there are occasions where it seems to want to interact with another artistic medium to maximize its effect. “Outpost” opens with a distorted trumpet noise and electronic music sounding like something out of a horror movie soundtrack. Filled with suspense, it easily conjures up a visual scene of a dark, dank night, waiting for something to emerge from the shadows. The track ends imperceptibly before you’re shaken up by the loud thuds that introduce the next track.
“Complex One/City” promises much to begin with, but in the end it delivers less than expected. There is an under layer of rhythmic African shakers and programmed percussion, with more improvised saxophone on top and interjecting piano chords. The layers don’t blend together as well as they might and, at 7.5 minutes, the track is a tad long. At this point, it is clear that Gestrin’s leadership is paramount to the success and delivery of the music. Without a strong piano part, this piece lacks direction and cohesiveness, despite some obvious structural signposts.
“This Past Tuesday” is a piano solo played by Gestrin and is easily the best track on the album. Standing at a mere two minutes long, it evokes a Debussy Prélude. The piano creates a dreamy ambient landscape with short, unhurried chordal statements that fade off into the distance.
The mind begins to wander in the latter half of the album. The samples become a little too distracting, mostly in a weird and disconnected way, and the cacophony descends into a rumbling of experimental noise. Redemption comes on two tracks: “Cliffs and Clouds” is fast paced, rhythmically strong, and intense, while the following track, “My Painted Dream Bird”, is beautifully poignant, crafted from long sustained notes on the flugelhorn and supported by a gentle piano background.
This is some of the most original and innovative new music on the scene today. Admittedly, it’s not entirely accessible even to those with the most open of minds, but for those who are willing to pursue, it’s well worth the effort.