Piano

(Brick’s Picks, LA Weekly—first draft, 2011)

I was at the Autry Museum a few years back and in the middle of the lobby some cat was making a dug out canoe. He had this enormous chunk of tree right there in the middle of the floor and he’d been hacking away at it in the traditional style. You could see the shape emerging at the one end. The other end, though, was still a big old chunk of tree. I looked at the thing and for some reason tried to figure out how to describe the thing in words. And I froze. It defied my descriptive abilities. This big giant half dead tree half boat thing all carved up, shavings everywhere. I stared and stared but damn man, it rendered me mute, language wise. I kept going back to it seeing if anything emerged, a sentence or three, anything. Nothing. On the way out of the place I made a long detour so as not to look at it again. It still haunts me, years later. It haunts me every time we have to write about a piano.

I still haven’t the vaguest idea how a piano works. Well, I know how it works, literally. You press a key and a little hammer plunks down on a wire and the wire resonates and you got a note.  Do a couple at once you got a chord. Pump the pedals for effects. I know that. But how it goes from that chord to, say, Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson is a complete mystery. I see Monk do a fist clomp on the keys and he makes jazz, I get drunk and do the same and I make noise. I get really drunk and I sound like Cecil Taylor, but Cecil Taylor makes jazz and all I get is someone yelling to get Brick away from the piano. So how jazz pianists do what they do completely mystifies me. 88 keys, ten fingers, feet at the pedals and even an elbow or two when they get carried away…and out of those ingredients they make the most amazing music. I’ll sit and watch their hands dart across the keys, listen to the panoply of sounds, freak as the improv turns unbelievable. But how to explain that in words? Horns have just the one voice emanating from the bell, just like we talk or write sentences. But a piano can have multiple voices, multiple narratives, different melodies racing around each other, coming together, piling on dimension after dimension in ways that most of us aren’t even going to perceive, let alone comprehend. Which is pretty cool, just hard to describe.

So when the best gig of the week is a piano player, I feel pretty helpless telling you exactly what it is he does and why. I can say Theo Saunders plays beautiful piano.  That he picked it up in the days when Trane’s quartet was really happening, changing everything, and McCoy Tyner was doing all those grand long sweeps and gorgeous clusters of chords dropped just right. And Monk was still happening, too, his playing spare, punctuated, dramatic. Saunders soaked all that in. So I’ll say that, and hope you get the idea. It’s a sextet gig, and man does he have the killer sextet, with Chuck Manning on tenor and Zane Musa on alto, trombonist David Dahlsten, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Tony Austin. They jam hard, no matter how obtuse the composition (Saunders can get pretty eclectic) and the up tempo pieces can get crazy hot. Best of all, it’s a release bash for his too long awaited Intergeneration. At Charlie O’s on Thursday, and no cover.

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