Saturday, March 24, 2018

Karel Boehlee – Soft Touch

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Piano is such an intriguing instrument. Not only can one pound the hell out of it, but it can also be played softly, almost caressingly, to a point that one wonders if it’s the same instrument.

Gene Lees, the eminent Jazz story-teller, recounts a time when he and pianist Bill Evans walked into a club to catch a set by Oscar Peterson who could, and often did, play the piano very aggressively.  During a lull in the performance, Gene turned to Bill and asked him why Oscar didn’t employ Bill’s method of understated and implied chords voicings. Bill replied: “It wouldn’t fit with what he was doing.”

Since the piano doesn’t have a personality, one’s approach to the instrument may have more to do with a player’s own personality than the instrument itself.

Although Oscar Peterson could certainly play quiet ballads on the piano, he preferred to play it in a percussive manner often employing riotous tempos and the full orchestral range of the instrument through the use of highly accented and syncopated rhythmic riffs. At times it seemed that his style of piano trio Jazz could generate the intensity of an entire big band.

Indeed, there are a couple of example of recordings featuring Oscar with big bands in which Peterson gave the entire band a run for its money!  Oscar, who at times could seem as big [both physically and in terms of his aura] as the piano itself, appeared to have a personality that sought out the instrument’s more percussive qualities, not to mention that, in Oscar’s case at least, employing 10 ‘fingers’ onto eighty-eight keys could generate many notes flying by at a very rapid pace. 

When I’m in the mood for it, there’s nothing I like better than fastening my seat belt and letting Oscar transport me into a world of foot-stompin, finger-poppin’ and heart-pounding percussive piano trio Jazz excitement. 

But there are times when I like to enjoy Jazz that unfolds slowly, quietly and very introspectively; the quiet moments made possible by a pianist who display a softer touch. This does not necessarily imply slower tempos and ballads, but a softer touch does connote a more controlled expression and one in which notes and phrased are doled out more selectively and with more spacing.

Recently, I was in a pensive mood and the pianism of Karl Boehlee of The Netherlands formed a perfect complement to it.

Boehlee’s penchant for sensitively played piano offers plenty of room for him to display his quite exquisite touch on the instrument. If you love the ringing sounds of the piano keys with all of their stated and implied overtones, Karel creates a piano sounds that is simply gorgeous.

Even on medium and the up-tempo tunes, Boehlee is very much a minimalist,. He is able to express a variety of emotions with what always seems like just enough notes.

Although he has been playing professional for about twenty-five years, Karel Boehlee is perhaps Holland's best-kept Jazz secret. The following comments about him were offered in an interview with Karel’s bassist, Hein van de Geyn, who is also the owner of Challenge Records:

I remember hearing him play in the early eighties, when I just returned from the United States. He was the first pianist of this kind of modern class I had ever heard in Holland. And on what level! Over the years Karel has improved and improved. The lines became more thoughtful, the harmony more precise; the rhythm was always very strong, but became larger, more in the pocket. Yet underneath all these ingredients there was always something more powerful: the sound! Karel's sound is unique; his touch just seems to reach you right in the centre of where music enters the soul. With impeccable taste Karel will always come up with something fresh, something his own and makes it sound so good.

Hein had this to say when asked why Karel is such a well kept secret or why is it that so few people in the Jazz world know about him.

Karel is a real player; he simply loves to go out and play. He will play with his old pals in little cafés, he will play with young and upcoming musicians, he will play with the best pop singers. Karel is a musician at heart. And the business doesn't know how to deal with this. The business wants exclusivity, wants to put a label on someone, wants an image. And somehow Karel is not playing that game. He is not chasing record deals; he is not showing his face at the right spots at the right time, he doesn't search for journalists to do interviews with him. He is busy doing what a musician should do: play music!

“On top of being a pianist, Karel is a very original composer as well. Over the years he has written quite a large repertoire of strongly individual originals. And I must say that it is through his original compositions that I hear most clearly what Karel wants to portray. To put it in words is not easy, so it seemed best to me to record it on my label, and share my enthusiasm with the listeners in this way

Perhaps it takes people with a broader outlook to recognize Karel's sublimity. People like Mikoto Kimata, the owner of M&I records based in Tokyo who has recorded ten CD's by Karel for his Japanese label; roughly at a pace of one album a year,
And while Karel Boehlee is largely unknown outside The Netherlands, he is well-known and very popular in Japan and his CDs continue to captivate Japanese fans.  Perhaps one of the reason for his popularity there is that he was the founding member of the anonymous-sounding European Jazz Trio, which helped ignite the "European jazz boom" in Japan nearly two decades ago.

Aristotle once noted: “How different we all are with regard to those things we hold in common.”

The wonderful thing about Jazz is that it communicates itself to us in so many different ways.

And the wonderful thing about the Jazz pianism of Karel Boehlee is how quietly and almost unsuspectingly his music can overwhelm us with its beauty and its majesty.

See [and listen] for yourself as Karel performs Gato Barbieri’s theme from the movie, Last Tango in Paris, with Hein van de Geyn on bass and Hans van Oosterhout on drums on the following video.


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