Liner Notes by Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association and senior contributor to Down Beat magazine. Please read the liner notes below.
Track 01 // Artist: Mathias Claus // Song: Hymn for the lost Souls (Mathias Claus)
Track 02 // Artist: Mathias Claus // Song: Old Folks (Blau, Shuman, Brel)
Track 03 // Artist: Mathias Claus // Song: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (Hammerstein, Romberg)
Track 04 // Artist: Bob Albanese // Song: Manhattan (Rogers, Hart)
Track 05 // Artist: Bob Albanese // Song: Time remembered (Bill Evans)
Track 06 // Artist: Bob Albanese // Song: Morning Nocturne (Bob Albanese)
Track 07 // Artist: Ayako Shirasaki // Song: Con Alma (Dizzy Gillespie)
Track 08 // Artist: Ayako Shirasaki // Song: Someday my Prince will come (Churchill, Morey)
Track 09 // Artist: Ayako Shirasaki // Song: Lennies Pennies (Tristano)
Mathias Claus, Bob Albanese and Ayako Shirasaki are devoted, virtuosic, daring and expressive pianists, who together assured that personal, spontaneous interpretation of classic repertoire was the focus of the 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival. In Best of 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival 2009 they employ the grandest of instruments to create music that emphasizes melody and its variations, harmonic command and propulsive rhythm anchored in swing.
Prior to the ambitious three-concert series held in three German cities in March 2009, Claus, Albanese and Shirasaki -- from Braunschweig, New Jersey and Tokyo, respectively -- had never met. During an intense week of performances they bonded, providing mutual support and encouragement to discover something about themselves, each other and the shared aesthetic they each use to their own purposes. The nine tracks on Best of 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival 2009 comprise three songs by each pianist recorded during the fest's culminating concert at the Small Hall of Konzerthaus Berlin, after similar programs at Steinway-Haus concert halls in Hamburg and Munich. In Berlin, Claus, Albanese and Shirasaki succeeded each other at a Steinway D, six mikes capturing their spheres of sound, before an audience of 250 as rapt as any attending a classical recital.
And why not? The solo jazz piano has a proud lineage dating from jazz's origins. Jelly Roll Morton recorded solo piano starting in 1921 followed in the endeavor by James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Tommy Flanagan, Michel Petrucciani and many others, leading to current exemplars including Kenny Barron, Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Professors of stride and boogie-woogie, free-jazz rhapsodists, innovators, adventurers, conceptualists and romantics -- a piano can accommodate anyone's outsized gestures and subtle nuances, respond to the merest touch and mirror a player's whole being. The best practitioners of the solo art believe they become possessed of greater creative capacity by engaging with a fine instrument as a collaborative agent, challenging adversary and/or orchestra of infinite possibilities, before an attentive audience but otherwise alone.
Claus, Albanese and Shirasaki are less well known than those pianists mentioned above -- so far -- but they have joined the golden circle by triumphing in an unforgiving format where every note is exposed, every motion observable. How did they get there, besides practice, practice, practice? Their personal processes are hard to pin down, though their backgrounds are not. And the narrative arcs of their solos are consistently compelling, persuasive, evocative.
Mathias Claus is a Stuttgart native in his early 50s who attended Berklee College of Music in the 1980s and since then has specialized in both solo performance and working with musicians from other continents. On his opening "Hymn for the Lost Souls" Claus handles energy's accumulation and release so that tenderness and determination alternate, tempos shift, densities and moods change but the beat, explicit or suggested, remains undeterred. In "Old Folks" his elegant reverence turns surprisingly lowdown and funky. On "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," a modern jazz standard though Sigmund Romberg wrote it for an operetta in 1928, Claus announces a dark mood, expands upon it with single note runs and two-note interjections over a deftly fingered bass line, moves from but doesn't shake the foreboding of the hour before dawn.
Bob Albanese, also in his early 50s, won his first solo piano competition at age 14. He, too, studied at Berklee in Boston, then enjoyed a formative stint in drummer Buddy Rich's big band, followed by tenures in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and finally New York City. Among his most notable accomplishments is One Way/Detour, his quartet album featuring saxophonist Ira Sullivan, released just prior to this one.
Albanese made a spot decision to start with "Manhattan." He says, "All my first five minutes were improvised; I really just played what was on my mind," and he seems to open with lavish appreciation, as if strolling through Central Park amid leaves fallen like the skeins of notes. Unself-consciously he shifts to loose left-hand stride and right hand caprice that comes to a point of conclusive summation. On "Time Remembered," one of Bill Evan's most reflective compositions, Albanese skips from somberness to a lighter mode, easily articulating fast and complicated figures, both hands colluding to resolve the complex composition he's reconceived in the moment. His "Morning Nocturne" is a splendor of independent parts and contrary motion.
Ayako Shirasaki was a piano prodigy, who was directed by her father when she was 10 years old to transcribe a Bud Powell solo. After graduation from a Japanese music conservatory she confirmed her jazz affiliation by performing in Tokyo clubs; she moved to the United States -- specifically, Brooklyn -- in 1997. Now in her late 30s, she has recently been occupied with raising her two young children, but she still gigs regularly in Brooklyn clubs such as Puppets in the fashionable Park Slope neighborhood. She identifies her style as influenced by Western European classicism and was a finalist in the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Piano Competition in 2005 and 2006, as well as a finalist in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
"I played very attentively to the sound, and tried to be a little more perfect than usual," Shirasaki says. Indeed, she launches Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" as a piece rewarding scrupulous technique, her playfulness asserting itself through an interpolated invention. Her finesse is evident in the winsome waltz "Someday My Prince Will Come," with its chorus of block chords climaxing in a touch of blues and her trilling, downward tripping-and-rippling figures leading to a fantasy end. The innocent humor she brings forth in "Lennie's Pennies" (that's Lennie Tristano and "Pennies From Heaven") becomes trickier as she sets single note lines and fragments against each other, treble chords against bass runs and treble runs against bass chords, juggling suspense and balance.
"We wanted to show the listener our own variety and the different influences we draw from," says Mathias Claus, who cites Shirasaki's classical training, Albanese's "native American swing element," and his own "European drive and power, from popular music" as aspects for comparison in the 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival concert.
"Playing solo you have to feel free and strong at the same time to express yourself," Ayako Shirasaki asserts. "And the concert hall atmosphere is so different than in a small club." According to Bob Albanese, who was accompanied through the festival by his wife and four-year-old son, "It was an effort in which everybody wanted to do something we'd be proud of to make it a success. There was a spirit of grace about the whole thing, and if that comes through in the recording, I'll be happy."
As that aura does permeate this document of a dream project, festival producer Jan Matthies may be happiest of all. The 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival will not be the last, and Best of 1st International Jazz Solo Piano Festival 2009 institutes a high standard for international solo jazz piano festivals to come.
-- Howard Mandel
Howard Mandel is president of the Jazz Journalists Association, senior contributor to Down Beat magazine, author of Miles Ornette Cecil -- Jazz Beyond Jazz and Future Jazz and blogger at www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz