Billy LESTER (Rufus Reid/ Matt Wilson) – From Scratch – Audiophile Vinyl from Newvelle Records 022 – 6/19: *****:
(Billy Lester; piano, Rufus Reid; Bass, Matt Wilson; drums)
Newvelle Records continues it’s impressive fourth season with a set that features a pianist operating in the demanding Tristano School of pure improvisation, abetted by a superb rhythm section.
Everybody in Modern Jazz learned something from Bebop: the flatted fifth, the punching, lurching rhythm that conduces to erratic bodily movements rather than euphoria of pulsing swing. (think of Monk’s famous neurotic shuffling dance) Not to mention a new Song Book of compositions with harmonic and melodic notions which depart from the classical balance of the Rodgers, Berlin, Hart, Porter school and include masterpieces of Monk, Gillespie and Parker. Pianist Billy Lester (age 73) hails from this era and absorbed the lessons of masters at a deeper level than most. His style is encyclopedic in its reach. References to Monk abound, while Bud Powell, Sal Mosca, and Charlie Parker figures criss-cross and dash all over a chorus in ways that bring this era back to the listener in vivid memories.
But it is not Bebop that drives the deeper method of this yet to be discovered (for most) pianist, but rather the more obscure and enigmatic school of Lennie Tristano. It was an encounter with this pianist when Lester was 18 (mid 60’s) that imprinted this piano with a new concept of Jazz. Call it radical improvisation. Tristano expounded and practiced the ideal that every note should be delivered spontaneously without preconception or determined patterns. Bebop, for all its hipness and originality, readily supplied new patterns which in fact quickly became cliches. The challenge of the Tristano School was to take this new expanded jazz vocabulary and deploy it in a setting which called for a singular degree of freedom and alertness while shunning the obvious note in long lines which skated over the deemphasized harmonic undercurrent. The line must not repose in the safe “lick” but search for the next, nearly unreachable musical idea. I have always felt that one musician in particular stayed true to this ideal for several decades and over dozens of recordings: Lee Konitz. His 1961 masterpiece is appropriately titled “Motion) So radical was his approach to improvisation in terms of the demands he placed on himself, that there is besides the feeling of restlessness urged on by an endless probing intellect, also a reticence, puzzlement feeling of reaching for that beyond the grasp. It is like listening to a philosopher who labors meticulously to find exactly the right articulation for a big idea that takes shape in front of you.
Lester works entirely in this school but as a piano player he doubles up on Konitz real time interrogations. Each hand is a separate instrument and together they wrestle through the implications of a musical idea–not always in perfect give-and-take as they sometimes overlap, argue in phase and desynchronize.
This new recording by the outstanding audiophile label, Newvelle Records (available only by subscription) From Scratch is aptly titled. Featured are nine “tunes” which are high-level workshops in pure improvisation by a trio led by the pianist but ably supported by veteran drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Rufus Reid.
This is jazz which highlights musical thinking with a vengeance, but that isn’t to say that it fails to deliver at an emotional level. Reid and Wilson are more extroverted players and add exactly the right proportions of swing, propulsion and melodic coherence. They don’t double down on the eccentricity but rather show that they “dig” the weirdness but have their own musical agenda. Reid, especially is flattered, with an astonishingly rich tone and the fatness of his quarter notes will be the envy of both bassists and audio engineers. Matt Wilson, meanwhile, combines the subtle stick work of the thinking man drummer combined with the virtues of the composer (which he is) a sense for the whole shape of things, an attention to dynamic and texture.
It is Lester himself though who stand to the fore. Each tune invites him to a risk-taking venture of reconstruction. The titles are familiar standards but the melody is in just about every case a prompt rather than a guideline. “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” flirts with the melody but quickly veers into digression. For separation of hands while maintaining coherence, Lester has few equals and it allows him to “wander without getting lost. “ How Deep Is The Ocean” is a pretty tune but it is not the prettiness that interests the pianist but rather the deepness. He goes down into the waters of abstraction while the rhythm mates stay on the surface and one imagines smiles all around when he resurfaces.
“Scrapple from the Apple” is twisted neither to the right nor the left. Lester simply pays homage to the Parker technique. Elaborate lines, marinated in blues and Monkish high-jinx, that joyfully zig-zag between hands. Reid and Wilson keep up a bright temp and add flare along with witty asides (Wilson) and deep tones and dark colors (Reid). Only the chords matter on “Body and Soul”, but there is a long tradition of melodic paraphrase and dissection that goes all the way back to Coleman Hawkins. Lester is right in this tradition and manages to thread his way with care through the labyrinth.
Newvelle has developed a remarkable musical package that sets a new standard for lovers of the Audiophile LP. Translucent heavy weight vinyl, a lovely fold out album jacket which includes and original work of art on the inside (and nothing else) that matches the striking painting on the cover. (both by Hery Paz) Other than the credits to the composers on the back, there is only a one page excerpt from “a fictional work by Tim Sultan. Churchill Down: chapter 4. Most unexpectedly it treats of a figure named Churchill who hangs with Sonny Rollins and then disappears only to surface enigmatically in the record collection of a Japanese jazz fanatic who seems to know the secret of the apotheosis. It is not clear what the reader is to make of this, but in terms of playing the unexpected notes, the prose piece nicely parallels the music.
This is a label that has completely gone its own way. Everything about the presentation, sound and aesthetic of these records is superlative. Every release comes as fresh surprise, but there is no surprise when it comes to the production values. Each first audition casts a magic spell which recalls those rare transformative experiences involving live music. It seems this year will perhaps even surpass the last, if this fine record is an indication of things to come.
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To 5:15
These Foolish Things 5:05
Scrapple from the Apple 6:02
Darn That Dream 5:35
How Deep is the Ocean 2:32
Back Home in Indiana 4:47
Body and Soul 4:56
I Surrender Dear 5:59