He dodges. He weaves. He’s playful. He’s dissonant. He evokes a range of American piano music and pianists, from Fess to Fats. He plays stride. He plays blues. He never allows his ideas to trap him in corners that he can’t think and/or play his way out of. Refined, graceful, charming–all describe what Massachusetts-based composer-pianist Steven Schoenberg evokes on this impressive live set. [Live: An Improvisational Journey]
- Robert Baird, Stereophile, October 2010
Pianist Steven Schoenberg is actually listed as a "classical" pianist, but his solo recording work is definitely in the jazz vein. This recording of a concert from 2006 finds him giving spontaneous improvisations, but where he differs from other pianists (who shall remain nameless, but whose name rhymes with ferret) who have gone down this road is that Schoenberg gives off a feeling that he's trying to communicate with the audience, making the music a two way street. "Notes," for example has Schoenberg creating a tune from the notes shouted out from the audience, while "In The Darkness" is performed with all of the lights of the theatre turned off. All of this would be gimmickry if the music weren't any good, but Schoenberg has a melodious touch on the piano, but isn't afraid to go from ethereal sounds to boogie woogie on a dime. All of the tunes keep there interest after repeated hearings (another difference from the other artist), and show a guilelessness on songs like "Day and Night" and "Purple Sky" that is refreshing.
- George W. Harris, jazzweekly.com
Why this guy isn't a household name is beyond me. Steven Schoenberg gives you everything you ask for in a solo, improvisational jazz piano album - music with passion, fury, creativity, imagination, and heart.
Recorded mostly at Smith College's Sweeney Concert Hall in Northampton, Mass., Schoenberg plays the fourth song, "In the Darkness," with the lights off, and does a four-handed improvisation on the seventh song, "Father and Son," with his son, composer Adam Schoenberg, at the keyboard with him.
Steven Schoenberg has a lush, wonderful musical vision that's hard to walk away from. He creates a multilayered, mind-bending sound. He closes out with his take on two Great American Songbook classics, "A Time for Peace" and "An American Encore."
- Tom Henry, toledoblade.com
Live performances always have a life of their own, an aura of awe or waves of raw energy. In my experience so far, that’s hard to capture on CD or DVD. But, it was accomplished for me on Steven Schoenberg’s release, Live: An Improvisational Journey. These songs, all improvised in concert, still feel as if they are coming to life for the first time no matter how many times you listen to them.
It’s just Schoenberg and his piano but its not lacking anything. This whole recording is exquisite. It creates a meditative, contemplative mood. This seems especially so on “Day and Night,” the opening composition. It practically begs you to stay and listen, such a maudlin request, gorgeous in its depth. “In the Darkness” – yes, played in complete darkness – is contemplative and … aquatic. That sounds silly, I guess, but that’s how it felt to me, like an underwater landscape. And I don’t even like water.
The music mostly feels very mature, deliberate, poignant. Yet Schoenberg also shows a playful side on the blues inspired tracks “The January Blues” and “After Dark.” Thanks go also to Norman Blain, who is given credit for recording the performances at Sweeney Concert Hall in December 2006. Or maybe it’s Aaryn Blain who did the mastering that made it sound so good. Or a combo of both. You can feel the piano strings vibrate, the crowd paying rapt attention.
Schoenberg has been involved in scoring films, musical theater and children’s music. In fact, some may remember his work from Sesame Street. Maybe that influence explains why this was such an enjoyable journey.
- Gray Hunter, A Hand In the Act of Writing, http://grayhunter.wordpress.com
Like the face of Helen launching a thousand ships, for better or worse, Keith Jarrett's 1975 Koln Concert (ECM) inspired a like number of improvisational piano recitals (half of which were ultimately Jarrett's own) and the entire genre of "New Age" solo piano music. This spontaneous creativity is, at best an inspiration, and at worst, a bore.
It is emphasized in jazz that musicians must be accomplished on their instruments and able to fully integrate all they know spontaneously. And that is with, typically at least, a starting point. What pianist and spontaneous composer Steven Schoenberg does in his own "interactive" An Improvisational Journey is start a piece with an eye blink, a deep breath, and a long, integral, creative exhalation with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Schoenberg summons an impressive knowledge of American music to produce these nine improvisations, each orbiting a different idea. "Day and Night" is a rumination reminiscent of George Winston's grand prairie pieces where all musical grammar is simple and straightforward. Not one dissonant turn is left without resolution. "After Dark" is a blues fantasy that travels from a smoky Chicago nightclub to a humid Arkansas African Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary to a nervous tightrope completed with a killer left hand.
"In the Darkness" is recorded as titled, in the dark. Here Schoenberg strays well beyond the fixed and durable phrasing of the American Songbook, achieving something like a hip John Fields nocturne. "January Blues" skirts the old 12 bars without ever fully embracing them. There is a whole lot of church here, as well as boogie-woogie. "Notes" is cobbled together from a note request from the audience. Schoenberg does his best Boulez on a brief asymmetric motif.
- C. Michael Bailey, Senior Contributor, All About Jazz
Not nearly as thorny (or windy) as Keith Jarrett and yet more challenging and wide-ranging than the circular improvisations that characterized what used to be called New Age music, western Massachusetts pianist Schoenberg hits the sweet spot on this self-produced live disc. Mixing cerebral, near-classical passages with forays into Broadway, jazz, blues and boogie, Schoenberg never stops thinking, as one idea swiftly leads him to another. But it’s his overarching lyricism that makes this journey feel emotional rather than technical. A captivating, meditative listen.
- Kevin R. Convey, Boston Herald
An improvisational piano performance can be akin to an abstract painting. Some folks just won’t get it. But what most folks consider an abstract painting is more than smears of paint on a canvas. A well-done abstract still has composition, texture, contrasts, and themes, though not necessarily with a recognizable point of image. Too often, musicians, good pianists, use an improvisational style as an excuse to merely peck at random keys with little thought of structure, or they find a structure that is a pattern with little passion. Just because the performance is improv doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have themes, timing, a sense of rhythm and perhaps, yes, even a melody. Steven Schoenberg may be making it up as he goes in his latest album, “An Improvisational Journey,” but even when he lets his fingers do the walking he remembers they have places on the keyboard they need to go. Schoenberg remembers the grace of timing, rhythm, and most of all melody. He can go off on a tangent without forgetting a song’s underlying theme. Schoenberg may have entered this concert not knowing where he was going, but he packed the essentials for the journey.
- Dean Poling, The Valdosta Daily Times
. . . He has an intuitive feel for following his fingers across the keys to places he sometimes can only follow instead of lead. A polished yet in the moment collection, if you don’t know him already and love piano and contemporary instrumental music, be sure to make this the next stop on your play list. He’s got the goods.
- Chris Spector, Editor and Publisher, Midwest Record, Volume 33/Number 31, December 1, 2009