Making his first album, Boyd's Blues, at age eighty-five was a huge accomplishment, and just after that Boyd Lee Dunlop died—literally. His heart stopped for close to six minutes in coronary arrest. And then, Boyd being Boyd, his heart started beating again, he returned to his home, quickly restored his health, and announced that he wanted to make a second record.
But what record to make?
Boyd's Blues is a trio album, a conversation among musicians playing pretty squarely in the jazz genre. This new album, The Lake Reflections, is a man alone at the piano going way beyond the conventions of any single genre to say something no style or convention can contain.
Here's what I hear: When playing alone, Boyd uses the piano as a place to create a peace he doesn't get anywhere else.
Things in Boyd's solo playing that point to this: He never plays very loudly; he creates harmonic structures that are intentionally balanced between major and minor keys, creating an emotional uncertainty and complexity; he constantly is deconstructing what he's playing, as if reaching for the right vocabulary to say what he wants to say, like he's on a quest for his truth/beauty and can't quite find it's ultimate expression; he has an incredibly sophisticated mathematical approach to harmony (which he explained to me for nearly twenty minutes on tape), and that complex language that he's spent his whole life developing is reaching toward something grand and beautiful and beyond everyday language and everyday experience. If I had to guess, that something has more to do with God than anything else for Boyd. It's what he points up to (he literally points his finger to the sky) when he's satisfied with his playing.
Boyd once said, "To me, it's a gift from God. I know what the fuck I'm doing, though." This man is where a very personal musical mathematics meets its maker.
Whether it's the blues, jazz, gospel, or classical, he's laying down something very beautiful. And at this point in his life, he's often laying down very open harmonic structures that are distillations of peace and beauty. These open moments can sound more classical to our ear, but it's probably the lack of blues and jazz sensibilities in these moments (his favoring the ambiguous 5ths over the minor 3rds and 7ths) that seem classical when played on solo piano. But I'd argue that these moments are genreless, just pure Boyd inventions, that the man is creating something entirely his own. At age eighty-six, and having already died once, he is reaching far beyond.
The artistic freedom that comes with solo improvisation requires laser-like focus. In order to help focus Boyd's playing, I brought to the studio a ton of expressionistic art and one-hundred words printed on white paper. One word and one image were to be combined in order to provide a focus point for each improvisation.
From all of those images and words, Boyd gravitated toward Brendan Bannon's large photographs of Lake Erie and the single word peace. That pairing on Boyd's part was a stroke of brilliance. We studied and talked about these photographs in the studio, their composition, their colors, their moods and feelings and seasons and ice and waves and ripples and sunlight. Boyd dove into these photos with an impassioned eye, and he then dove into these improvisations, inspired by the artwork of his great friend, Brendan. I knew that natural beauty and great music are often in conversation, but I didn't foresee this artistic collaboration between friends. This discovery of how to make this record was itself an improvisation.
But why peace?
When I asked Boyd to play anger, a fight, thunder, even sadness, he wouldn't do it. "That's not my thing, man. That's not what music is for." Ask him to play peaceful water, he takes to the keys and makes you weep it's so beautiful, and then tells you how the harmonic structure works mathematically. He'd play a grotesque tritone (the diminished 5th) and we'd laugh at why it's called "the devil's chord." He'd play me an open 5th and add an ambiguous 6th way up the keyboard and say, "Ah, see?" After days of working together like this, it became clear that Boyd had a very specific language that he'd been developing. Humbly, he wondered out loud if people would want to hear it. I reassured him that, indeed, the world would want to hear it - that the world deserved to hear it.
His solo improvisations are also intense, fast-moving collages. The improvisation we're calling "America the Peaceful" winds its way through a harmonic maze of Boyd's own making, and finally finds an exit into this nation's most famous musical tribute, "America the Beautiful." The America that Boyd finds is not some country he's angry at or in love with. It's not some place made up of fifty states. It's a state of mind, a place in the heart. It's odd and beautiful and perhaps it's a contemplation of how even in a fucked-up, war-mongering nation (Boyd served, and Boyd hates war) there is still a gorgeous lake, a Steinway that's in tune, a photograph that makes you weep. Jimi Hendrix playing "The National Anthem" solo at Woodstock comes to mind, of course, but Boyd's quest for peace isn't tied to a particular social movement weeping and raging over a particular war. Jimi was twenty-six, Boyd eighty-six. Aged sixty years longer, Boyd's peace is deeply personal and, probably because of its introspection, vastly universal.
Anyone with the will to listen will hear what a complex and tumultuous peace it is, but in all of the turmoil, Boyd is reaching for peace. Musically, that's what he does, assembling and then assailing moments of sheer beauty, kaleidoscopically inverting the harmonic structure of his improvisation in ways that turn the most deft musical heads daft. "How the hell did he do that? What the fuck? Play that again!"
As Boyd puts it, a single note in the right chordal context can be his "harmonic vocation," a calling to play even more freely, more openly, more daringly. Following his harmonic vocations, Boyd the musician can get way out there, return, and keep going. Then again, so can Boyd the man—all the way to zero and back at age eighty-six. I can't help but notice that many of these improvisations are also just about six minutes long, the same amount of time Boyd recently spent on the other side of this life.
With the first record we celebrated Boyd, and here I really want to see his music and musicianship celebrated. Boyd the musician. Boyd the composer. And what a rare and wonderful one he is. With no apologies, I hand the world The Lake Reflections, a record of strange struggles to find peace, a weird and wonderful language, a challenging collage of ideas and impossible incongruities. Boyd may point up at God when he hits his musical mark, but when that happens, I point straight at Boyd.
- Allen Farmelo, New York City, November 2012.
Produced by Allen Farmelo
Recorded by Allen Farmelo and James Calabrese at Soundscape Studio, Buffalo, NY
Mixed by Allen Farmelo at The Snow Farm, Brooklyn, NY
Mastered by Jessica Thompson at The Magic Shop, NY, NY
Assistant Engineer John Garcia
Piano Tuning George Miller
Photos by Brendan Bannon
Design by Betsy Frazer, Frazer/Montague Design
© & P 2012 Mr. B Sharp Records. All rights reserved.