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  • Glenn Siegel

Tickling the Ivories: A World of Piano

A World of Piano, a series of three solo concerts, celebrated its 13th season at the Arts Trust Building in Northampton, February 23-25, as Alexis Marcelo (Friday), Kris Davis (Saturday) and Rob Schwimmer (Sunday) each gave a stirring lesson in how to construct a solo recital. The series was a collaboration between Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares and the Northampton Center for the Arts.


The piano is at once a string instrument and a percussion instrument, able to play chords and single notes, handle bass chores, utilize counterpoint and alter it’s sound by preparing its innards. The piano’s orchestral-like versatility makes it a uniquely rich device for an unaccompanied performer. A World of Piano takes its name from a 1962 Phineas Newborn album, and these three accomplished musicians afforded us a chance to hear their wildly personal takes on the ever expanding jazz tradition.


Alexis Marcelo spent the second half of the 1990s at UMass, where he was mentored by Dr. Yusef Lateef. In 2001, when I presented Brother Yusef at the UMass Magic Triangle Series on his 80th birthday, he insisted on having Marcelo in the band (alongside Von Freeman, and former students Tim Dahl and Kamal Sabir.) While still a youngster, the late, great multi-instrumentalist brought Marcelo to Europe to perform with his ensemble and featured him on multiple recordings. He has also formed a strong association with percussionist, and long-time Lateef collaborator Adam Rudolph, with whom he tours and records. Marcelo began his concert with the gospel tune “Let Us Break Bread Together”, which set the tone for a soulful and uplifting evening of music. The rest of the recital included an Afro-Peruvian melody, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, and a number of distinctive Marcelo originals which were highly percussive, rhythmically provocative, and full of pleasing melody. His anxiously awaited recording debut as a leader, a solo outing on the well-respected Swiss label, Intakt, was delayed by his work in Anthony Davis’ celebrated opera, “X”, which recently concluded a two-month run at the Metropolitan Opera.


Kris Davis treated a full house of listeners to a daring and bracing concert that featured a healthy dose of improvisation and a clear demonstration of her prowess at the keyboard. Her use of metal objects on some of the piano strings expanded her sound palette, transforming the piano into a dampened, buzzing kalimba-like instrument. Her repertoire ranged from references to 20th century classical music to Monk’s “Evidence”. Davis’ profile has risen precipitously in recent years, due to her expanding discography, her respected record label and her work at the Berklee School of Music. She has 25 recordings as a leader, and has contributed to dozens more by folks like Ingrid Laubrock, Eric Revis and Tom Rainey. Her latest with the cooperative ensemble Diatom Ribbons, was recorded live at The Village Vanguard with Terri Lyne Carrington, Val Jeanty, Julian Lage and Trevor Dunn. That record was released on Pyroclastic, a label she founded in 2016 that has produced over 30 albums by some of the most forward looking jazz artists of the day. She is the Associate Program Director of the Berklee Institute For Jazz and Gender Justice, and with fellow pianist Angelica Sanchez, is creating The International Music Creators and Collaborator Workshop, a one-week program for emerging musicians that will host its first season at Bard College in June.


A World of Piano concluded on Sunday afternoon with a riveting performance by Rob Schwimmer, who also appeared in the series in 2008. He arrived in the Valley in time to share Saturday dinner with Kris Davis, with whom he collaborated on Noah Preminger’s 2019 release, Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert. It was fun to watch them geek out and “talk piano”. Schwimmer, who possesses one of the quickest wits I’ve been around, played theremin on Preminger’s recording and is an acknowledged master of the instrument. Unfortunately, he did not play it in Northampton. Schwimmer has a most intriguing resume. Although not as well-known as his talent would suggest, he has traveled the world with Simon & Garfunkel, and performed with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Willie Nelson, The Cleveland Orchestra, Chaka Khan, Laurie Anderson, Bette Midler and Queen Latifah, as well as a long list of jazz luminaries. With Bang On a Can’s Mark Stewart, he leads the hilarious and musically astute duo, The Polygraph Lounge, and has toured extensively with the Mark Morris Dance Company. Full of rhapsodic arpeggios and classical flourishes, Schwimmer provided a varied set that included Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence” and selections from the Great American Songbook. He told me that after hearing Davis’ Saturday concert full of avant adventures, he wanted to gear his performance in a more tonal direction.


For me, programming these piano concerts is so much fun. Trying to convey a sense of the wide world of jazz piano by finding balance and brilliance each season is a welcome challenge. No matter how many years we do this, we will never run out of great musicians willing to explore new facets of the keyboard universe.





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