My one-word summary of Michael Allen Harrison’s double CD set, “Pianist/Composer,” is “WOW!” I have seen and heard Harrison’s name for a long time, but none of his CDs came my way for review until I reviewed one of his students’ CDs (the very impressive Alexx Carnathan) earlier this year. I was not prepared to be so dazzled and charmed at the same time. This set is made up of Harrison’s favorite compositions from the past twenty years or so, and includes his new “Concerto #1 in Eb Major,” which is a tour de force all by itself. Both discs are very eclectic in their musical range, but Disc 1 is more classical overall, and Disc 2 has a jazzier flavor. The majority of the pieces are orchestrated or have accompanying instruments in addition to the piano, but Harrison’s piano is the star of the show. We’re only halfway through the year, but I’m certain that this will be on my list of favorites for 2004.
The three-movement concerto opens the first CD. The first movement (“I Breathe”) started out as a love ballad in Harrison’s musical, and evolved into a gorgeous 12 1/2 minute piece influenced by some of the Romantic composers. The first half of the piece is gentle and sweet, but begins building in the middle to a fiery climax. Primarily piano and strings, this piece really sets the stage for what’s to come. It highlights Harrison’s gentle touch as well as his magnificent bravado and virtuosity. The second movement (“Will You Take Me There”) is a bit more orchestrated, and the lovely melody is haunting and passionate. The third movement is full of flash and dynamic pianistics. A piano solo, Harrison must be sitting in a puddle by the time he gets done playing it live! Great stuff! “Remembrance” is a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Israel’s independence and to the lives lost during the Holocaust. Performed with Aaron Meyer on violin and The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, the piece has a deeply emotional and tragic feeling, but also suggests triumph and moving forward. I love “Transitions,” a piece inspired by a wild rainstorm. Full of passion, power, and a subtle touch of mystery, the playing on this piece can take your breath away - effortless control and amazing chops. Stunning! “Fly Away” is another favorite. It started as a cool groove for a vocal tune, and is a piece Harrison and his band play differently every time. This version is piano, light percussion, and a wonderful oboe part performed by Fred Korman of the Oregon Symphony. A great CD, but, wait -there’s more!
As I mentioned, the second CD is a bit jazzier overall, but there are several different styles present. “Tomorrow’s” was composed as a gift for Harrison’s daughter on her graduation from junior high. Lightly orchestrated and featuring oboe, guitar, and piano, this piece is sunny and radiant. “Moments in Passion” is a dark, sultry piece with piano, guitar, and percussion that would be a wonderful slow dance - a favorite. “Standing Alone” is a slow bluesy piece that could have stepped out of the 1930’s - I really like this one, too! “Nocturne in Db Major” is a gorgeous improvisation that was recorded as it was being created late at night in the studio while imagining the time of the great Romantic composers. “Little Bit Naughty” is a great blues piano solo - slinky and fun! “Ema Sh’li (Mother of Mine)” is a haunting ballad composed for Harrison’s mother’s 50th birthday. A warm, bittersweet, and very loving piano solo, it is both classical and contemporary, and thanks “Mom” for making him practice the piano when he was a kid.
“Composer/Pianist” is truly an outstanding collection on so many levels. I get to feeling kind of jaded from listening to so much piano music, but this set really blows me out of my seat! I give it my highest recommendation.