Roberta Piket: Sides, Colors
Thirteenth Note Records
Roberta Piket is a pianist with rich musical abilities who is making a name for herself as one of the best of her generation of keyboard players. Her 2011 release, Sides, Colors is a well-conceived recording, using her trio supplemented by strings and horns in a potpourri of originals and standards. It was realized in a creative manner, embodying several interesting ideas. First, it was recorded in an open studio instead of the usual booths for individual musicians. Thus, the players were in the same sound zone with each other when recording, so they could link to each other visually and musically rather than with just a headset feed. This not only helped the musicians to get in synch with one another, it also provided the feel of a live date without compromising studio recording quality. (Think of Rudy van Gelder's iconic recordings for Blue Note). In addition, the CD is organized in two sets, or "sides," like the old LPs, which lends both diversity and coherence to its overall programmatic aspect.
Most importantly, Sides, Colors was in preparation for several years, with many opportunities for the musicians to get together and refine their ideas under Piket's leadership. More typically, the leader comes up with the concept, recruits the players, and the recording comes together in one or a few days in the studio. The result can be exciting, but the tracks are often repetitive in what they accomplish, whereas Piket's recording incorporates multiple facets of music, each track having its own identity. That can only happen, as it did in this case, when the musicians have ample opportunity to flesh out ideas together. The approach is reminiscent of the fervor around bebop and cool jazz, when the players, such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Thelonious Monk, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and so many others, would, over a period of time, swap notes, try various chord changes and rhythmic punctuations, and even write tunes together on the spot. So this record harks back to a time when jazz was truly a communal enterprise.
The two sets or "sides" incorporate six tunes each, with side "A" having mostly a laid back quality, while side "B" explores the frenetic side of things. "A" begins with Bill Evans' "Laurie," initially giving the melody a romantic sweep. Piket then moves into a lyrical mode with strings against piano improvisation, perhaps with just a touch of Duke Ellington, certainly in the mode of 1950s-60s stylings that many of the instrumentalists then did with string accompaniment. The woodwinds emerge in the same fashion. "Make Someone Happy" is stated with a light lilt that is perhaps a cliché but picks up energy when Piket moves into straight ahead choruses that swing. "Billy's Ballad," by drummer Billy Mintz, offers a nostalgic melody, expressed in diverse ways with piano, strings, and winds. Given its emotional richness, it could easily provide a sound track for a film.
"My Friends and Neighbors (for Sam Rivers)" is a traditional spiritual in a striking arrangement by Piket. It starts out with bassist Johannes Weidenmueller's understated pizzicato statement of a gospel hymn that is one of several references to Americana that recur in the album. The theme is taken up by string section. Then, Piket on piano develops variations with modern chromaticisms, a gradual buildup of heightened energy, with drums added for emphasis, suggesting a questioning severity that escalates into a frenzied Charles Ives-ian chorus of instruments in collision. One of several brilliant instances of ensemble playing with free-form improvising on this recording, it alone makes this CD worth listening to.
"If I Loved You," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, begins with a minimalist piano statement of the melody, with nice brush work on drums and bass improvising, reminiscent of Bill Evans' cohorts, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, and Piket improvises very much the way Evans might. A woodwind accompaniment comes in. Then Piket sings the tune unembellished with no vibrato. Her singing seems a bit strained in the high range, but she quickly makes up for that shortcoming with swinging choruses of scat in unison with her piano, which works very well, formalizing the incidental sub-vocalizing that pianists like Keith Jarrett do when they are improvising. Piket's rendition then builds in intensity with a touch of film noir, providing a good example of Piket's ability to vary styles and forms within a single song.
The first side concludes with Piket's "Empty House," embodying a feeling of loneliness and loss, beginning with a contemplative cymbal roll followed by melancholic chords and reflections on piano.
Side "B," consisting of five Mintz originals and one Piket, starts with Mintz's "Shmear," a Yiddish-ism meaning an aggregate or collection of things that go together. The drums and piano enter with a "shmear" of sounds and then breaks out into an upbeat blues with heavy bass and drum accentuations. There is some exceptional piano work by Piket, with contrapuntal left and right hand playing with different rhythms that are very hard to execute by a drummer, much less a pianist.
The title of the next song, "Idy's Song and Dance (Song)" suggests that the persona of "Idy" may be manipulative, a notion expressed in Piket's playful use of electric piano with sostenuto notes that sound like vibraphone tones. This is followed by "Idy's Song and Dance (Dance)," offered as a simple folksy tune with a Latin jazz attitude.
With "Relent," Piket comes off well on organ, her playing reminiscent of the rhythm and blues references of Richard "Groove" Holmes as well as Dr. Lonnie Smith, providing a strong contrast with Piket's piano work and showing how resilient a player she can be.
"Ugly Beautiful" changes the pace with a McCoy Tyner feel, especially on Piket's relentless left hand on the piano. It is a driven expression of eternal recurrence with no let-up. The powerful drum work by Mintz stands in contrast to his typically reserved style. The CD concludes with "Degree Absolute," a tribute to the 1960s BBC TV drama, "The Prisoner." Its use of an idiosyncratic 17/16 rhythm manages to be danceable in a Latin rock kind of way, while at the same time it tells a disjointed story with a touch of paranoia.
Sides,Colors is notable for its diversity of styles and forms, which lends great interest to it. At some points, it mirrors the great American composers, such as Ives and Leonard Bernstein. At other junctures, it is playfully irreverent. Sometimes the music is quiet and reflective, and at others intense, complex and troubling. In this respect, it reflects the modern trend to incorporate multiple genres into the jazz idiom. Kudos to Roberta Piket and her fellow musicians for putting together a truly creative recording that at one and the same time cradles and challenges the listener.
Tracks: Laurie; Make Someone Happy; Billy's Ballad; My Friends and Neighbors (For Sam Rivers); If I Loved You; Empty House; Shmear; Idy's Song and Dance (Song); Idy's Song and Dance (Dance); Relent; Ugly Beautiful; Degree Absolute.
Personnel: Roberta Piket: piano (1-7, 9-12); electric piano (8); organ (10,12); vocal (5). Johannes Weidenmueller: bass (1-5, 7-9, 11,12). Billy Mintz: drums; percussion (12). David Smith: trumpet; flugelhorn (1, 3, 4, 6). Charles Pillow: clarinet; bass clarinet; flute (1, 3-6). Anders Bostrom: flute; alto flute (1, 3-6). Sam Sadigursky: clarinet; soprano saxophone; tenor saxophone (3-6). Fung Chern Hwei: violin (1, 3-5). Mikyung Kim: violin (1, 3-5). Charisa Rouse: viola (1, 3-5). Jeremy Harman: (1, 3-5).