Monday, July 20, 2020

Australian pianist sets down a manifold expansion of solo jazz piano

Alister Spence has set down on two discs a different kind of solo improvisational maximum, worthy of comparing to, but not dependent on, such a milestone as the Keith Jarrett "Köln Concert."

Alister Spence in "Whirlpools" offers a wealth of puzzlement.
The veteran Australian pianist-composer has assembled 23 free improvisations, eccentric to most kinds of jazz pianism, where his roots are. Over the course of two brightly recorded discs, "Whirlpool" (Alister Spence Music) amounts to a highly charged example of what this essential instrument in just about all Western music can express on its own, with relatively few unconventional techniques now and then expanding the sonic palette.

Spence's keyboard lucubrations are not for everyone, it's safe to say. Like the music itself, the titles he's chosen vary from illuminating to baffling. They are all uncapitalized, starting with a parenthetical short word connected by implication with a longer word, which may or may not be read as standing by itself or essential to the full title.

The listener is charged with applying the title to what he hears or else concluding that the title's meaning must be private. In "(over)taken," for example, the track opening Disc 2, there are chase elements that are resolved along the way, with the pursuit eventually absorbed. I get the "overtaken" meaning, but "taken" alone seems murkier as a structure for which "over" is a kind of porch.

Inevitably, and putting the titles somewhat aside, connections to music the listener is familiar with will be made. Given Spence's apparent aesthetic freedom, the similarities may play no part in what the pianist is consciously attempting to do. There are repetitive structures that suggest minimalism, for example, except that harmonically the static tremolos that preoccupy both hands in "(under)standing" are more cluttered. That piece also raises another problem with the project: As I hear the tremolos fill the canvas less insistently, the shaking continues in the right hand, and some calming bass chords set up a single-line finish to the album's longest piece (8 minutes, 17 seconds). Is the coherence accidental or artistically driven?

So a couple of central questions emerge. They may have bothered Spence as well, but they certainly irritated me, stimulating my response (and not always favorably). The performer in free improvisation has to decide whether to reject elaboration or indulge it: When and how should he undertake shifts in texture, tempo, and mood?

And that raises a central question for the listener: Am I hearing musical statements that amount to more than a hill of magic beans? Or is the performer sifting through those hills of beans looking for something different and stimulating for himself? Sometimes a relaxed feeling strikes one as just what is needed, as when the mezzo-forte dissonance in a close-textured melodic line yields to a relaxed feeling in "(back)water." But in that case I was nagged by a sense that Spence was treading water waiting for a new inspiration. And how patient must I be with what could be mere
dithering? On the other hand, maybe cultivation of patience is essential to the point of "Whirlpool." Maybe I am mistaken to try wresting too much meaning from what Spence is up to. If he is occasionally at sea (even briefly, and some of the pieces are fragmentary), so be it.

Finally, just to offer some guideposts to adventure-seeking listeners, I heard aspects of Cecil Taylor's action-painting approach, without so much barbed dissonance, as well as hints of Bill Evans' gentler musings. There is clearly an attraction to pure rumination, but there is also a cryptic, allusive quality, with some of the wryness of Erik Satie. In a couple of pieces — "(well)spring" and "(sub)stance" — there seems to be the clear influence of Claude Debussy's preludes. The latter Spence piece in particular, with its sense of something magnificent and abandoned beneath the surface, brought a strong suggestion of "The Sunken Cathedral."

Like real whirlpools, these pieces under that title generate self-contained forces both dangerous and inviting. Spence is prepared to rest in being fascinated with what he knows and what he is given to explore. How much that focus sustains fascination for the listener is open to question.

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