Sunday, March 29, 2020

Kenny Drew, Jr. - Unacknowledged and Underappreciated

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For some Jazz fans, solo piano is the ultimate conceit. Unbridled and unrestrained, to their ears it represents a kind of Jazz-gone-wild. Unchecked by the structure of having to play within a group, they view it as simply a vehicle for pianists to show off their technique, or to just show-off. And unless the solo pianist is particularly adept at dynamics, tempo changes and repertoire selection, solo piano can develop a sameness about it that makes it deadly boring to boot.

For others, solo piano represents the ultimate challenge: the entire theory of music in front of a pianist in black-and-white with no safety net to fall into. For these solo piano advocates, those pianists who play horn-like figures with the right-hand and simple thumb and forefinger intervals with the left [instead of actual chords] are viewed as being tantamount to one-handed frauds.

Can the pianist actually play the instrument or is the pianist actually playing around the instrument?

Ironically, at one time in the music’s history, solo piano was a preferred form of Jazz performance. As explained by Henry Martin in his essay Pianists of the 1920’s and 1930’s in Bill Kirchner [ed.], The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 163-176]:

In New York, the jazz pianist of the early 1920s was called a “tickler”‑ as in “tickle the ivories.” Since Jazz was part of popular culture, the audience expected to hear the hit songs of the day, stylized and personalized by their favorite players. Often hired to provide merriment as a one‑man band, the tickler was a much‑honored figure of the era. He was wary of de­parting too often or too radically from the melody, since this could alienate listeners. As recordings were relatively rare and not especially lifelike, the piano was the principal source of inexpensive fun - a self‑contained party package for living rooms, restaurants, bars, and brothels. The ticklers exploited the orchestral potential of the piano with call‑and‑response patterns between registers and a left‑hand “rhythm section” consisting of bass notes alternating with midrange chords. This “striding” left hand lent its name to “stride piano,” the principal style of the 1920s." [p.163]

In particular, beginning in the 1920s and continuing well into the 1930’s, solo piano recitals by James P. Johnson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Teddy Wilson were a source of much delight and admiration for listeners when Jazz was still the popular music. Later in this period, the boogie-woogie piano stylings of Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Joe Turner were all the rage.

Indeed, the first 78 rpm issued by Blue Note Records, which was to become the recording beacon for modern Jazz on the East Coast in the 1950s and 60s, would be by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The 18 performances that were recorded on January 6, 1939 singly and in duet by Ammons and Lewis have been reissued as a CD entitled The First Day [CDP 7 98450 2] and are examples of solo blues and boogie-woogie piano at its best.

Perhaps the epitome of Jazz solo piano was reached in the playing of Art Tatum, or as Henry Martin phrases it – “the apotheosis of classic jazz piano” – whose dazzling command of the instrument was a constant source of wonder and amazement to the point that some thought that they were listening to more than one pianist at the same time!

And while Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Lennie Tristano, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson continued the tradition of solo piano into the modern era, pianist Bud Powell’s use of the right hand to create horn-like phrasing as an adaptation of the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie transformed many pianists into essentially one-handed players in an attempt to mimic Powell’s artistry.

What’s more, over the second half of the 20th century, solo Jazz piano became something of a lost art with fewer and fewer pianists performing in this style and still fewer listeners seeking it out.

So, in the face of what had become a mostly languishing form of the art, the Concord Jazz, Maybeck Recital Hall series stands out as somewhat of an anomaly.

For not only does it revive the solo Jazz piano form, it does so in grand fashion by offering the listener forty-two [42] opportunities to make up their own mind about their interest in this genre. And, in the forum that is the Maybeck Recital Hall, it does so under conditions that are acoustically and musically ideal.

Maybeck Recital Hall, also known as Maybeck Studio for Performing Arts, is located inside the Kennedy-Nixon House in Berkeley, California. It was built in 1914 by the distinguished architect Bernard Maybeck.

"The 50-seat hall, ideal for such ventures, was designed as a music performance space by Bernard Maybeck, one of the most influential and highly revered of Northern California architects. Maybeck, who died in 1957 at the age of 95, was a man renowned for his handcrafted wooden homes in what became known as "The Bay Area Style." An architect whose principles included building with natural materials, Maybeck constructed the hall of redwood, which allows for an authentic, live sound that neither flies aimlessly nor gets swallowed up, thus making for an optimum recording environment." - Zan Stewart, Vol. 35, George Cables

The hall seats only 60 or so people, and before assuming that it’s name reflects some form of political reconciliation between the major opposing parties, the hall was designed by Maybeck upon commission by the Nixon family, local arts patrons who wanted a live-in studio for their daughter Milda’s piano teacher, Mrs. Alma Kennedy. Hence the name – Kennedy-Nixon House.

The room is paneled, clear-heart redwood, which contributes to an unusually rich and warm, yet bright and clear acoustic quality. There are two grand pianos: a Yamaha S-400 and a Yamaha C-7.

In 1923, the hall was destroyed by fire, but was quickly rebuilt by Maybeck.

The house was purchased in 1987 by Jazz pianist Dick Whittington, who opened the hall for public recitals.

In 1996, the house was purchased by Gregory Moore. The recital hall is no longer open for public concerts, although it is used for private concerts that are attended by invitation only.

Between 1989 – 1995, Whittington and Concord records produced and recorded the previously mentioned 42 solo piano, Maybeck Recital Hall performances. Each featured a different Jazz pianist and Whittington made a concerted effort to include in these recital pianists whom he felt deserved wider public recognition. In addition, Concord also released CDs of 10 jazz duets that were performed at Maybeck during this same period.

At this point, almost 25 years later, some of the Maybeck Recital Hall, solo piano discs issued in the Concord series may require a bit of a treasure hunt to locate, but the editors of JazzProfiles thought it might be in the interests of the more adventurous of its readers to at least make information about the complete series available through a listing, cover photo and brief annotation of each of the discs in the series.

These performances represent an all-inclusive overview of solo Jazz piano at the end of the 20th century, as well as, an excellent opportunity for the listener to make up their own mind about this form of the music as played in a more modern style.

One wonders if such an all-inclusive opportunity will exist in the 21st century or if the historical record is now closed for future solo piano recitals to be offered and recorded on this scale?

Which brings me to Kenny Drew, Jr. [1958-2014], who for much of his career was an unacknowledged and underappreciated Jazz artist.

At number 39 in the series, the CD of his performance at Maybeck on August 7, 1994 was in danger of not making the “cut,” a potential tragedy in the making for me had it not happened as it was my introduction to the playing of this brilliant pianist.

Kenny has such a massive technique that at times it’s almost impossible to absorb everything that he is laying down. Notes come in a fast and furious manner with blinding fast arpeggios, parallel lines octaves apart [sometimes 10ths], and clusters of single note phrases that are dazzlingly complex, all of which combined to make him sound like a harmonically modern version of Art Tatum. 

Kenny’s pianism is of the highest order and is very reminiscent of that of the late Michel Petrucciani. Like Michel, beyond this display of phenomenal technique is a brilliant mind, one which is able to put the technical facility to good use fashioning interesting improvised “stories” that are full of unexpected twists and turns. 

Perhaps the best explanation of what he Kenny does particularly well is described in this excerpt from Larry Kelp’s  Maybeck notes- “Listen as he strips away the tune's facade, tosses out most of what is familiar, and digs inside, examining the structure — what really makes the song work, not just the memorable melody. Then he reassembles those elements into his personal statement.”

Sadly, Kenny passed away at the relatively young age of 56, but Maybeck did launch a 20 year recording career as both a sideman, the leader of his own trio and as a solo pianist and he has left us a number of excellent albums which will be reviewed on the page in subsequent features.

In the meantime, here are the complete insert notes by Larry Kelp from Kenny's auspicious debut as a solo pianist as captured on Kenny Drew Jr. at Maybeck [Concord CCD 4653; Maybeck Recital Hall Series Volume Thirty-Nine].

“Yes, the opening song is Stella By Starlight. But, much as he does with the closing Autumn Leaves, Kenny Drew, Jr. reinvents an overdone pop standard in a way that makes the piece his alone. Listen as he strips away the tune's facade, tosses out most of what is familiar, and digs inside, examining the structure — what really makes the song work, not just the memorable melody. Then he reassembles those elements into his personal statement.

By the second tune, Horace Silver's lovely Peace encased in virtuosic arpeggios and other ornamentation, there should be no question in anyone's mind that Drew possesses massive keyboard technique, a command of the bebop language as well as classical expertise. He could add florid icing to any composition if he wanted to impress listeners. Instead, decoration is used strictly in service of the particular song's development.

Take his choice of three compositions by one of his major influences, Thelonious Monk. Well You Needn't  has been performed by most of the jazz piano masters, but never like this. Instead of using it as a jumping-off point for his own ideas, Drew utilizes as his materials only the basic components of the tune, as he wildly pushes and shoves them about, collapsing them together into a dense, fissioning pile of notes, and just as quickly makes them explode forward and stumble at breakneck speed toward the surprising climax, avoiding any sense of regular rhythm because this is clearly how the tune should be played. At least when Drew tackles it.

"I've played that one hundreds of times over the years," Drew says, "and I'm sure I'll play it hundreds of times in the future. He's one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. The Monk piece before it, Ugly Beauty, is just a beautiful tune that I love to play, and is the least Monkish in my approach to it, a more impressionistic approach than Monk would take."

A shy person offstage, words don't come nearly as easily to Drew as music does. Like his father before him, bebop pioneer Kenny Drew, Sr., he seems to like music. However, he didn't study at his father's feet. Born in New York City in 1958, Drew was raised by his aunt and grandparents.

"It's hard to say why I was attracted to music or when I got serious about it," Drew says. "I started learning how to play piano when I was four." (His aunt Marjorie gave him classical piano instruction.) "My dad's brother and sister played piano, and so did my grandmother. There was always music in the family, so I didn't think about it as being a choice."

He does know when he began to think of jazz as a career. With a laugh. Drew states "It was when I was 19 or 20 and started getting paid to play in clubs." In his early years he played piano and electric keyboards in rock and funk bands as well as jazz combos. Once the Jazz world discovered his mastery of the keyboard, Drew found himself busy working with a wide array of leaders: Smokey Robinson, Slide Hampton, Stanley Turrentine, Out of the Blue, the Mingus Big Band, Sadao Watanabe and Frank Morgan among them.

Winner of the 1990 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, in recent years he has recorded ten albums as a leader for a number of labels {principally in Europe and Japan), with bandmates including Al Foster, Ralph Moore, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Fddie Gomez, George Mraz and Terence Blanchard.

Following his appearance on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz radio series, McPartland recommended Drew to Concord president Carl Jefferson, who approached him with the suggestion of recording at Maybeck Recital Hall. In spite of Drew's impressive credentials, this album marks his recording debut for Concord Jazz, his performing debut at Maybeck Recital Hall (one of his very few appearances on the West Coast), and it is his first solo piano album to be released. As distinctive as his prior recordings have been, this disc is the ultimate resume, the one that most clearly demonstrates just who Drew is as a musician.

One can hear references to the giants on whose shoulders he stands, which is as Drew wants it. "My style came from various things, from listening to all the great recordings my dad made, from being heavily influenced by Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson; from the rock and funk things I've done. I've also always studied and listened to classical music. I like a lot of modern things, so every once in a while a little Schoenberg or Messiaen might sneak into my playing. It all sinks in and becomes a part of you."

For the Maybeck concert, "I've been playing most of these tunes a long time, usually in group settings. I'm comfortable with them, and they make good vehicles for me. I like doing less well-known songs, like Cole Porter's After You, which I learned from a Bill Evans album. He's the only one I've ever heard play it. There are a lot of great songs that get lost in the shuffle, and I like to find them."
Drew offers his comments on the other tunes on this album:

Peace - It's one of my favorite ballads. I can't even remember the first time I heard it, but I'm sure it wasn't by Horace Silver (the composer). It was probably Bobby McFerrin's version."

Coral Sea - I wrote it eight years ago while I was in Key West. I'd gone out on a boat on a snorkeling trip with some friends. We spent time on a reef, and I guess the tune came from that, at least the title did. Later I found
out the Navy has an aircraft carrier named the Coral Sea. I hope nobody thinks this is about an aircraft carrier!

Images - It's my father's composition from his final album. I think it's one of his most beautiful tunes. It shows his harmonic sense, his technique, his sense of swing, and it's always in perfect time."

Waitin’ for My Dearie - Drew picked one of the least-known songs from the well-known Broadway musical, Brigadoon. "I was watching the play on television years ago, and I loved this song as soon as I heard it. But I didn't think it would work as a trio tune, so I've always played it as a solo piano piece."

Drew observes: "This was a much different album for me. Not only was it recorded live, but also it is solo. Without other musicians you have the freedom to change at will the tempo, the harmonies and keys, things you couldn't do so easily in a group context. But the risky part is that you're alone, and you have to work harder."

Maybe so, but Drew's performance at Maybeck is the most definitive statement on record that he has yet made. With no other musicians to turn to or collaborate with. Drew has clearly defined his style, maybe in the context of more standards than he usually tackles at one sitting, but also with A finely focused sense of what he wants to say. "Jazz isn't like classical music where you play what's written," Drew says. "Not even all classical music is like that. The point is to honor and pay respect to the people who have gone before, not to copy but to assimilate all those influences and make them a part of who you are."”

Here’s Kenny Drew Jr.’s version of Monk’s Ugly Beauty, which may be the only waltz that Thelonious ever composed.

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