Joe Gilman

Pianist and educator Joe Gilman successfully translated the visual arts into jazz on his 2010 Americanvas CD, which presented compositions inspired by paintings of such artists as Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Georgia O'Keefe, and Norman Rockwell. Now Gilman has done it again with his Relativity recording, this time focusing exclusively on selected lithographs, woodcuts, and Mezzotints by M.C. Escher. It's not necessary to be familiar with these Escher works to appreciate the music, although Gilman's detailed notes provide an enlightening guide to each track. Many of the compositions by Gilman, Scott Collard, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, and Noah Kellman have complex structures in response to the intricacies of Escher's art, but the music is not at all academic, and is always accessible and enticing. Gilman's piano is assisted by Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor and bass clarinet, Nick Frenay on trumpet and flugelhorn, Zach Brown on bass, and Corey Fonville on drums. After Gilman's distinctive tributes to Dave Brubeck and Stevie Wonder, and more recently his fascinating interpretations of the visual arts, one can hardly wait to see what he devises next.

"Three Spheres" is "composed entirely as an exercise in the number '3'," focusing on three keys, with a melody consisting of 30 three-note motives. That melody is a buoyant hard bop concoction as played by Lefkowitz-Brown's tenor and Frenay's trumpet. Both their solos are zestful and flowing, and Gilman's assured piano turn is lyrically attractive. "Waterfall" is written so that the melody descends as its harmonic movement rises. Frenay's rounded flugelhorn slowly reveals the poignant theme, with Lefkowitz-Brown entering midway with a complementary counter melody, while Fonville's bongo-like drum patterns produce a contrasting element. Lefkowitz-Brown and Frenay essay warm, heartfelt solos above Gilman's gushing affirmations. The leader's improv relies on a series of trickling single-note lines to make its mark. Tenor and trumpet reengage both in unison and opposition for an exciting finale, as the thrusting drum work of Fonville urges them along.

The music of "Three Worlds" attempts to simulate "the forest above, the surface in between, and the water below." Gilman's ringing single notes and sporadic chords create a rippling wave-like setting, as does his subsequent circular motif. Brown's bass takes up the "current" as Gilman rhapsodizes at length with profound feeling on the hopeful theme. Brown's emphatic arco pronouncement concludes this moving track. "Smaller and Smaller" represents 12 reptiles musically with a 12-tone row. Lefkowitz-Brown charges into a swinging, churning solo from the start, after which the easeful legato theme appears. Frenay's statement resembles the tenor's in its insistent, pulsating flow. Brown and Gilman maintain the relentless mindset in their excursions as well. The horns' passionate, contrapuntal out chorus only heightens the energy level. "Covered Alley" contains a melody with both upward and downward contours to go with the artwork's ascending and descending staircases. Frenay plays it with a mournful air as Gilman and Lefkowitz-Brown enter along the way with a counter melody that gives this 1:29 miniature the character of a fugue.

"Encounter" concerns optimists and pessimists taking part in a funky dance, the theme delineated by trumpet and tenor with backing electric piano illuminations. Frenay's muted trumpet solo is tartly appealing, while Lefkowitz-Brown pontificates in a more extroverted manner. Gilman returns to acoustic for a rollicking improv prior to a riffing out chorus ultimately punctuated by his vibrating tones on the Rhodes. Tranquility abounds in "Snow," as Gilman first unveils his lustrous theme and then Lefkowitz-Brown's cavernous bass clarinet mingles with Frenay's pensive muted trumpet, the pianist's more forceful constructions, and Fonville's cymbal washes. Gilman reassesses the melody in a sensitive trio format at this point, before an assertive vamp brings this aural depiction of a winter wonderland to an end. For "Day and Night," Escher illustrated white birds flying at night and black birds flying at morning, and Lefkowitz-Brown's composition utilizes major and minor chords connected with dominant chords to try to musically capture the visual. The evocative theme is relaxed over a Brazilian beat, as convincingly performed by tenor and trumpet. Gilman's carefree solo is succeeded by the composer's purposeful take and Frenay's concise but beguiling input.

Escher's "Sky and Water" shows birds and fish in different alignments, and Gilman's piece alters a minor phrase to indicate either sky or water, the effect being riveting and revealing as the two horns develop it. Brown's bass solo is emotionally impactful, as is the pianist's exploration. Lefkowitz-Brown leaves restraint behind in his spirited, persistently building venture. "Dewdrop" is another miniature, this time 1:58, that has a regretful mien as harmonized by tenor, trumpet, and Gilman's Monkish accents, plus a last fleeting, anguished saxophone cry out. "Ascending and Descending" is about the futility of ascending but getting nowhere. This is a boisterous hard bop anthem by Scott Collard that generates high energy solos from Lefkowitz-Brown and Gilman, preceding a series of thematic variations atop Fonville's vigorous drumming.

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Scott Albin