Sunday, January 25, 2015

Returning to his "second home," Zach Lapidus plays an enchanting Premiere Series concert for the American Pianists Association

For about six years, Zach Lapidus brought his own Portlandia vibe, transmuted and refined by an Indiana University jazz education, to the Indianapolis music scene — with wonderful results. I think I first heard him with Frank Glover outdoors on an electric piano at Eagle Creek Park.  The pleasant setting was far from ideal for appreciating a new player, but Lapidus struck me as someone special.

From promise to mastery: Zach Lapidus conveys certainty and adventure.
Twice during his time here (2008-2014), he was chosen to be a finalist for the Jazz Fellowship Awards, competing for the title of Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. The second time was for the current competition, at which I was one of the preliminary judges.

Saturday night was my first chance to hear any of the finalists in the Premiere Series of trio performances at the Jazz Kitchen. One more series concert in the same club setting remains — Kris Bowers' on Feb. 28.

The whole series benefits from the services of two outstanding colleagues for the pianists — bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps.

It's hard to know how to sum up the excellence of this particular trio. Lapidus leads the way with an approach that's clearly the product of a thorough grounding in jazz piano, yet adroitly swerves away from sounding overstudied, so that being in the moment can thrive. Thus, he may have surprised himself in "Yesterdays," the Jerome Kern standard that opened the trio's 90-minute set Saturday.

He said to the audience afterward that he had intended a more restrained interpretation of the song, but let loose because being back in Indianapolis let him "feel like I got out of prison" — a typically challenging New York apartment-dwelling milieu that he's trying to escape in search of more agreeable digs.

It's likely that Lapidus often changes his mind or surprises himself with the direction a particular performance goes. When the New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett indelibly called jazz "the sound of surprise," he didn't mean only for the listener. "Yesterdays" moved from amiable pep to a heavy four-four groove, an organic but startling transformation.  That feeling was well established by the time Phelps confirmed it with a sudden precisely timed outburst to mark the end of Tucker's straightforward solo.

Long admired for his astuteness with harmonies that both startle and confirm, Lapidus knows how to caress a melody as well. The second tune, "Nobody Else But Me," brought that gift to the fore. Jobim's "The Waters of March,"  with its more fragile melodic atmosphere, also allowed the pianist to draw deeply on this gift.

But there was no more magical display of it than in the set's encore, "I'll Never Stop Loving You."
Introduced as a tribute to the much-loved local singer Cynthia Layne, who died last week, this interpretation properly adhered to the enchanting tune, draping its phrases carefully over the harmony, almost as if Lapidus were also projecting Sammy Cahn's lyrics: "The night doesn't question the stars that appear in the skies / So why should I question the stars that appear in my eyes?"

Layne had that kind of effect on people, and it's fair to say the trio's performance secured a place among the best of the many posthumous musical honors she will continue to receive. Many people will never stop loving her.

The set earlier moved fruitfully among several Lapidus originals.  There was "Stray," a whimsical sort of march that flirted with disorder. There was an ingenious mash-up, as he fused Wayne Shorter's "Vonetta" with an almost Whitmanesque evocation of the night, titled "While Brooklyn Sleeps,"  that eventually, high in the treble, conjured up birds out of Messiaen.

The trio kept the intensity high while having fun with an Ornette Coleman-inspired blues,  "This Is Their Music."  Some avant-garde takes on the blues seem to want to escape from the essential blues feeling, but this one never abandoned the form's expressive roots.

Another inspiration derived from the eccentric Japanese author Yukio Mishima, for whom Lapidus came up with a mosaic of frenetic rhythmic patterns linked to Phelps' protean percussion skills. Recurring aggressive episodes evoked the doomed author's nostalgia for samurai culture. This is music that forces recognition of jazz's ever-widening horizons.

And that raises a point that the APA Jazz Fellowship Awards continually makes unavoidable. Jazz contests, as they become ever more firmly established, threaten to engender their own "competition style" — just as classical contests may have done. In jazz, that takes the form of showcasing a pianist's encyclopedic knowledge of more than a century of jazz piano, extending back to ragtime.

Stanley Crouch, a shrewd listener though an unkempt writer about the music, praised this approach in the epilogue to his 2006 book "Considering Genius" in assessing Bill Charlap: "He, like a number of the younger players who have come forward over the last fifteen years or so, calls upon all of the styles of jazz at will, which gives a greater breadth of rhythm to their phrasing and a much more varied harmonic base to their work."

Charlap is one of five judges of this year's final round on March 28. There's a history to uphold here, I suppose. But I like the fact that Lapidus breaks the mold of learned (two syllables, please) pianists. His knowledge of the tradition may be as deep as anyone's, but I don't hear in his performances a constant tinkering with it — clever historical parody.  Breadth of rhythm to his phrasing? Check. Varied harmonic base? Check. It's all there in Lapidus, without his having to "call upon all the styles of jazz." Nuts to that! This shouldn't be Jazz Appreciation 101.

What the music needs is not an endless supply of knowledgeable practitioners, but people whose knowledge is so deeply ingrained with what they have to say for themselves that the listener always receives something that advances the music. Of course, such gifts are rare and not always easy to recognize. And I don't mean to disparage mastery of the Charlap kind.

But the Lapidus kind is closer to what we mean when we correctly apply the oft-abused word "genius."

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