Neil Alexander and Billy Lester-- Solo jazz piano at its best

Each year a number of outstanding solo jazz piano CDs are released, and two stand-outs so far in 2013 are Neil Alexander's Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1, and Billy Lester's Storytime. Both pianists are based in towns just above New York City, Alexander in Marlboro, and Lester in Nyack, and both fifty-somethings are unveiling their first solo albums rather late in their respective careers. Alexander's influences include Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, whose "The Rite Of Spring" he is currently performing in its Centennial year in a solo piano arrangement. The frequent intensity of Alexander's playing can also be traced to time spent on synth and electric piano with his fusion band NAIL, and his work with Pink Floyd tribute band The Machine and such other groups as The Mahavishnu Project. Among Lester's many influences are Lennie Tristano, Tristano disciple (and Lester's teacher) Sal Mosca, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. As shown on his trio and quartet sessions, Lester is fond of skillfully reharmonizing or inverting the chords of standards to the point that the original tune is often virtually undetectable. Alexander and Lester take separate paths stylistically on these solo recordings, but the end result is the same-- spirited, compelling, purposeful, and technically accomplished piano jazz.

Alexander presents two versions of the title tune, "Darn That Dream." The first contains an expansive intro leading to a tender theme reading with Tatumesque runs and flourishes and fresh chordal voicings. His long thematic development is rhapsodic and emotionally moving, and displays his classical training. The heartfelt reprise is carefully detailed and anything but rudimentary. The second "Darn That Dream" has a yearningly introspective, sparse beginning that evolves into a much disguised rumination on the melody that artfully examines the tune's chordal and harmonic treasures in alternatively serene or powerful stages. The opening of Alexander's "Whisper of Angels" alludes to Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" and Bill Evans' pianism, but the composer mixes gentle lyricism with exclamatory escalations in a way that's truly his own, grasping and holding onto your attention for the nearly 12-minute entirety. Pat Metheny's "Sirabhorn" receives an initially pensive and ultimately dramatic interpretation, Alexander's active left hand complementing his cascading or darting runs and deeply resonant chordal passages. The impressionistic culmination is masterful and riveting.

The percussive, urgent attack by Alexander on his "A Question of Energy" is reminiscent of Corea, although this piece as a whole has a modern classical aura with dissonant asides and assertive left-hand figures. Alexander's intro to "My Foolish Heart" is unusually tempestuous for this standard, and even his thematic exploration has an edginess to its lyricism, as he rousingly wears his emotions on his sleeve. "Blues for Martha (Graham)" also opens percussively and tumultuosly, with reverberating chords, followed by swirling, rumbling runs, and never lets up in this vein in a tribute to the modern dance luminary that is certainly modern but definitely not a blues. Among the other tracks is the final "Epilogue," where an ingratiating circular left-hand construct draws you into its sweet, yet emotionally stirring content, bringing to mind Jarrett's similarly rapturous flights of fancy. Alexander's lovely piano sound and focused melodicism easily sustain interest for the full seven minutes.

Lester's CD in turn is launched with "Prologue," and its atonal start leads to bluesy note clusters and sonorous chords, and then some boppish right-hand phrases. Some counterpoint elements, stride rhythms, arresting tumbling runs, walking left-hand bass lines, catchy motifs, and insistent staccato punctuations, all coalesce into a driving and swinging segment that fades to an elegant conclusion. "Lullaby" begins with probing lyricism and a repeating motif, and Lester uses cascading runs and twirling figures to amplify his objective, as it soon becomes apparent that the chord changes of "Body and Soul" have been his guiding light all along. Off-kilter Thelonious Monk flavored runs introduce "Lightning Man," and it also quickly emerges as a "Body and Soul" derived improvisation. This time there's more tension at a quicker tempo, with a diversity of textural and rhythmic devices, all at the service of Lester's sharply focused thematic imagination. "Ode to Bud Powell" features Lester's dense and rapid extended sequences and captures Powell's confident swagger circa 1949 or so, but this 2:29 vignette turns out to be just a heady prelude to a melody never played.

"Dark Streets" has a choppy bop line, a Monkish motif, and then Lester's propulsive, prolonged contrapuntal conversation between hands that is rhythmically buoyant and in restless motion thematically, riffing and winding with logic and gusto. Lester's "Bonanza" (all 11 compositions are his), has a reflective rubato prelude, and gradually unfolds an infectious rhythmic pulse as the pianist inculcates more chords and lengthy delineations into the mix, with lively left-hand bass lines that fit seamlessly into the absorbing flow. "Sal Mosca" is a tribute to Lester's mentor, and the pianist swings heartily through his surging phraseology, prodded by his devilishly enticing left-hand supplementary patterns, and one hears "Yesterdays" as the piece's foundation. Lester closes with "Encore," a pleasantly upbeat mid-tempo number consisting of overlapping voicings, recurring motifs, rich chords, and Lester's characteristically gratifying interplay between hands, yet another example of a fascinating, harmonically attractive sustained and cohesive improv in search of a desired, yet hardly missed, resolving theme.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!

  • Email E-mail
  • Share Share
  • Rss RSS
  • Report Report

Community Authors

Scott Albin