Liner notes by James Lester
My two fondest childhood memories are hearing music and stories. As the son of a jazz musician, it was very common to be lulled to sleep by music. Whether tucked into bed or tucked onto a banquet at the Village Vanguard, I recall both the soothing and exciting sounds of jazz playing into the wee hours. But equal to the jam sessions were the tales: children’s books read aloud or improvised oral narratives—these also were my nightly entertainment, and the perfect panacea for bedtime resistance.
So it is no wonder I make these associations while listening to Storytime, the new solo piano album by my father, Billy Lester. My father has always been a musical storyteller. Like his heroes Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, and Sal Mosca, Billy Lester’s improvisations are uniquely personal, turning familiar songs and chord progressions into entirely individual inventions, or what could be described as musical storytelling. In fact, it was these giants of jazz who described the art of improvising as such. Billie Holiday talked about needing to experience a song in order to sing it. Charlie Parker famously opined “music is your own experience: if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” But it was my father’s first major influence, Lester Young, who referred to his music as “the stories I like to tell.”
Storytime is constructed like a narrative, using sequencing as its contextual arc with each track as the content. The first tune, “Prologue,” begins with atonal melodic musings. These make way for dense cluster chords, varied tempos and complex counterpoint. But this storm of sound leads seamlessly into swinging bass lines and bebop-inspired right hand licks accompanied by simple left hand chords. “Prologue” is essentially an overture, as it sets the stage for the big story to come: a story of contradiction.
It is only in this realm of contradiction where a lilting track called “Lullaby” can use dense and dissonant chords to soothe the listener into tranquility. The exact same chord sequence is then transformed into the up-tempo tune “Lightning Man” just one track later (both songs are based on the chord changes to Body and Soul). This time the tune is no longer sweet and endearing; it is now fast and biting, with a crackling pianistic edge that shoos away the light touch from before. “Lightning Man” brings us to “Ode to Bud Powell,” a lightning-speed improvisation that recalls Bud’s contradictory approach of rugged attack with the pursuit of melodic perfection.
The record proceeds to conjure story imagery quite literally, with tracks like “Dark Streets” and “Color Red,” until it lands on another ode of sorts, “Sal Mosca.” In this tune the majestic chords and right-handed flutters bring to mind Mosca’s incredible solo work from the late 1970’s and early ’80’s. While this track could be seen independently as an homage to Mosca (Lester’s mentor), it also works as a penultimate story moment in the context of the album. Lester ushers in his late teacher and muse, here as deus ex machina, to assist in bringing us to the album’s conclusion—“Encore,” a rhythmically light and bouncy medium-tempo number that bids us farewell. It swings invariably like the jazz that influenced this set. Yet, keeping to the overall story arc of contradiction, it abounds with harmonic questions, some unanswered, and melodic peaks that push the boundaries going way out of the comfort zone of the listener’s ears.
Great music is not required to be subjective. But when it is, we get to feel we are being spoken to directly. It’s as if the club, concert hall, or stereo dissolves and we are alone with the artist, one-on-one. To put it in simpler terms: we get to be told a story. This wonderful and invaluable experience of subjective creation makes us feel unique and enlightened. This is what you will experience with Storytime, and all of Billy Lester’s music for that matter. This is something special. Because when childhood evaporates into a series of distilled memories, there is nothing sweeter than to be whisked back to a time of innocence and told a story.