Tag Archives: solo piano

LOVE NOTES FROM RAY SKJELBRED (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 27, 2016)

First, Ray makes friends with the piano, then says quietly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll play something I like,” or words to that effect.

He does and we do.

THE ONE I LOVE is not only a memorably catchy Isham Jones tune, but it’s famous in jazz history as the first song Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines improvised on together, at their first meeting at the musicians’ union.  I hear their approving phantasmal selves in Ray’s version:

Like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN has become victim to people who race through it and make its lovely contours mechanical.  Knowing, as I do, the memorable versions by Bing Crosby (1936) and Louis (1947), who treated it as a rhythm ballad, I’ve come to dread it in performance.  But Ray’s tender version, starting with the verse, is what the song is all about: gently swinging optimism, a view of the world where wonderful surprises are still possible:

Here’s James P. Johnson’s hymn of praise to the gentle loving ways that we all might recall and even enact, OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

Finally, a reminder that even when love affairs implode, the subject is still good for beautiful music: I COVER THE WATERFRONT (“We like it!  We like it!”):

Ray Skjelbred doesn’t cater to his audiences; he doesn’t woo us.  But he continues to delight, to amaze, with his love for the piano, the songs, and the great traditions.

This post is for my faraway and well-remembered friend Donna Courtney.

May your happiness increase!

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DALTON RIDENHOUR, POET-NAVIGATOR (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, May 31, 2018)

Dalton Ridenhour, photograph by Aidan Grant

I’ve heard the splendid pianist Dalton Ridenhour several times in New York City, although most often as a member of an ensemble — where, Hines-like, he glitters and surprises.  But this year’s Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival (in Sedalia, Missouri) offered more opportunities to savor his exceptional solo and duo playing — both deeply rewarding.

I said to him that he reminded me, at the keyboard, of a man who had built his own idiosyncratic, beautiful house, and was gently exploring it in the dark.  And, of course, inviting us along for the journeys.  He said the metaphor was about right.

Dalton can frolic and stomp, but he can also muse, and his playing is always animated by wonderful rhythmic impulses.  He takes familiar repertoire and through slight shifts — he’s never cliched — we visit old songs and hear them, tenderly liberated from decades of routine.  He doesn’t covet “innovation” for its own sake, but his performances reflect his deep self, no matter what the tempo.  Here he guides us, gently but with swinging intent, through four compositions either by or associated with Fats Waller.

I find it so reassuring to know that he and his music exist, and hope you share my delight.

Here’s MARTINIQUE, from Fats’ last show, EARLY TO BED.  I envision it as a hip-swinging chorus line dance: admire how Dalton’s variations within the form expand and extend it without ever undermining it:

SWEET SAVANNAH SUE begins close to the 1929 Waller version, but becomes even more spirited and playful as it goes along:

Another kind of sweetness, the Harry Warren SWEET AND SLOW, as a change of pace.  I love this song dearly, and hear Al Dubin’s always-clever lyrics in my head:

Finally, the Waller classic so often obliterated into a series of chords — but not here — HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, which Dalton turns into a stroll through familiar fields yet with surprising vistas.  And his shift into Uptown tempo halfway through still makes me feel uplifted:

How that young fellow can play!  And his imagination is broad and unfettered.

May your happiness increase!

DALTON RIDENHOUR PLAYS THE BLUES, or “KEEP OUR CITY CLEAN,” (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, June 1, 2018)

Dalton Ridenhour, photograph by Aidan Grant

Dalton Ridenhour is a genuine improvising musician, but someone whose subtleties might get taken for granted because he is so good at so many things.  And he doesn’t self-congratulate as he plays, as some do, turning their head to the audience as if to say, “See how impressively I played that last little thing there?  Time to break into spontaneous applause!”

He has the confidence and steadiness to go his own way within a song or a performance, creating structures of sound that aren’t flashy but that are terribly moving.  I came away from Dalton’s solo performances at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival feeling that I’d witnessed someone brave and patient, balancing the familiar and the inherently personal.  I told him after one set that I thought he had built his own house and was roaming around inside it, and the metaphor seemed to please him.

His SEDALIA BLUES pleased us so much more.

Around the three-minute mark in this leisurely performance, a while city sanitation truck came to a stop on the street (out of camera range but nearby) and began doing what such trucks do.  It had “Keep Our City Clean” painted in green letters on its side, and for a moment I thought of titling this improvisation “KEEP OUR CITY CLEAN BLUES,” but it isn’t my place to do so.  My place is to celebrate Dalton Ridenhour, splendid quiet explorer of heartfelt music.

Here’s SEDALIA BLUES.  Underestimate it, and Dalton, at your peril.

I will post more from Dalton, in solo and duo, for certain.

May your happiness increase!

CINEMA FORRESTER: JOEL FORRESTER at JULES (May 6, 2018)

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

Pianist, composer, writer Joel Forrester invents scores for silent films and has done so for decades.  But we don’t associate him with the megaphone and director’s chair, nor does he have credits as a producer or director.  Yet I’ve come to think of some of Joel’s more evocative compositions and performances as the scores for films that have not made it to the screen.  Soundtracks to our own imaginings.

Here are three such cinema-without-cinema creations, invented and re-invented on Sunday, May 6, at the delightful French bistro / jazz club JULES (65 Saint Marks Place, an easy walk from several subways).  Joel is playing at Jules every Sunday this summer from 4-6:30, sometimes solo, sometimes with guests / friends: a day ago, he had a trio of himself, David Hofstra, string bass; Vito Dieterle, tenor saxophone.  JULES is lovely, by the way — good food, interesting wines, and a truly friendly staff.  And the latter means more to people like me than I can say.

From May 6.  Close your eyes and imagine the film — this one is easy, because it is Joel’s idea of music to be played while the credits roll:

This Middle Eastern sound-portrait is named for Joel and Mary’s son, the illustrious Max.  I met him — not in the desert — and he deserves this song:

Finally, one of Forrester’s many selves, among them the swing pianist, the eccentric / novelty / stride pianist, the Powell-and-Monk through a bright prism, and the 1933 Chicago blues pianist, half in the dark, a half-finished beer on top of the piano which is of course a little assertive in the upper octaves:

Did you like Cinema Forrester?  More to come.  And come visit Joel at Jules.

May your happiness increase!

THE MANY LIVES OF THE BLUES: RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO PIANO, AT THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 25, 2016)

Yesterday I posted two duets between pianist Ray Skjelbred and cornetist Marc Caparone, and encouraged my viewers to take a chance by watching and listening — even if they’d never heard either player — and some people did.  One of them wrote to me and asked if I could post some more of Ray.  Nothing simpler and nothing more gratifying, so here are a bundle of blues and blues-related solos from a set Ray did at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 25, 2016.  He introduces them, so you won’t need explanations from me:

Dr. Bunky Coleman’s BLUE GUAIAC BLUES [medical explication, not for the squeamish*]:

Jimmie Rodgers’ TUCK AWAY MY LONESOME BLUES:

Ray’s own SOUTH HALSTEAD STREET, for Jane Addams and Art Hodes:

THE ALLIGATOR POND WENT DRY (for and by Victoria Spivey):

SUNSET BOOGIE (for and by Joe Sullivan):

Ray Skjelbred is a poet — also when he gets up from the piano bench — of these shadings and tone-colors, of the rhythms of the train heading through the darkness.  We are fortunate to live on his planet.

May your happiness increase!

And the promised medical bulletin: [*guaiac is a resin found i our happiness increase!n certain trees, and it is used in medical testing to check for blood, otherwise invisible, in one’s stool.  If the guaiac turns blue, one has that problem described above.  Now you know.]

THREE SOLO MASTERPIECES BY DICK HYMAN (PIEDMONT PIANO COMPANY, August 9, 2014)

Dick Hyman was born on March 8, 1927, which makes him just shy of 87 1/2 years of age on August 9, 2014 performances at Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, California — part of Mike Lipskin’s Stride Summit, a generous tradition.  Mr. Hyman remains a marvel of consistently surprising creative joy.

A little cosmology, with HOW HIGH THE MOON:

Jerome Kern’s YESTERDAYS:

For Mister Waller, YACHT CLUB SWING:

May your happiness increase!

LOVE IN BLOOM: RUMINATIONS by RAY SKJELBRED (July 8, 2014)

Creating beauty is not easy. In surroundings that may be hostile to it, the energy necessary for creation requires a particular focus and perseverance. The act of creation may seem quietly defiant. In their diligence, the artists tell us, “We don’t really need you all to sit in rapt silence; we will keep on our own paths — doing what we know how to do, doing what we live for — even if you don’t notice.”

Such was the case when Ray Skjelbred played solo piano last month at Pier 23. And since “jazz” is often characterized as rhythmically propulsive, engaging our senses through hectic energy, I offer Ray’s musings on three pieces that are, like the voice of Cordelia, “soft and low.” Two are defined as love songs; the third sounds like one as well, even though its title has no romance in it.

Listen closely. Beauty never goes out of fashion.

MARY’S SPECIAL (for and by Mary Lou Williams):

YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME (with echoes of Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young):

LOVE IN BLOOM (for Bing Crosby and Jack Benny):

When I sent these three videos to Ray for his comments, he wrote back, “Many years ago when I first started playing piano and visiting Berkeley I used to stay with Dick Oxtot and I learned later that his daughter would quietly stand behind me while I played, look at the pattern in my Hawaiian shirt, then imagine stories that went with the music and the pattern. Your point of view reminded me of that.”

I encourage you to invent their own sweet narratives while Ray creates his own variations on love in bloom, a garden of sounds.

May your happiness increase!