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Sten Sandell & Georg Graewe : Nuscope Pianists Look Forward Through the Past

The history of jazz, tied up as it is with the invention and development of recording technology, is preserved in many legendary recordings. Of those, there is a special strain given to great solo piano performances. There's Art Tatum's "Tiger Rag" (1933), Lennie Tristano's "Turkish Mambo" (1954 or '55), Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert (1975) and Cecil Taylor's Willisau Concert (2002). In fact, technology has afforded us an embarrassment of riches. With that debt in mind, I sometimes think of the improvisations lost to time, before cylinders and tape and the MiniDisc. What of the great old men of music known for their improvisational prowess: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven?

In his short essay "Impromptu" in the booklet of Georg Graewe's Fantasiestücke I-XIII, improvising musician Fred Van Hove writes, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have come far from the early days of free improvised music some 40 years ago with its total cluster playing. Free improvisation is as adventurous as before, and now it has become adult and Georg proves it." It's an interesting idea, though I believe "adult" is a poor choice of words—consider Cecil Taylor, for one, whose music is largely based around clusters of sound: is it possible to call his music anything but adult or fully developed? Yet I believe I understand what Van Hove is getting at: a return to tonal expression in non-idiomatic improvisation. Derek Bailey, an original practitioner of non-idiomatic improvisation, developed a new musical language of traditionally non-musical sounds, based on extended technique. Forty years ago, musicians like Bailey wished to break as far away from the sound of known music in order to free themselves from its trappings. But now that time has passed and the extra-musical has developed its own orthodoxies, musicians can perhaps be less burdened by tonal associations and can explore the twelve tones in peace. Or so it seems in these two new recordings.

When I listen to Graewe's Fantasiestücke I-XIII and Sten Sandell's Solid Musik, I imagine a line, tracing back in time, through Schoenberg, Bartok, Beethoven, and Mozart; eventually coming to rest at J.S. Bach. There is a quality of naked musical thinking in both Graewe's and Sandell's playing that is, in its economy and poise, almost classical. Georg Graewe, who is German, has led a busy international musical life since his professional debut in 1974. His is a wide contemporary scope: compositions for orchestra and theatre scores, chamber music and various jazz settings. He has worked with notable artists such as Anthony Braxton and Hamid Drake. Though jazz is an integral part of his musical universe, it is not much in evidence in Fantasiestücke I-XIII, his third solo recording. Rather, we're treated to a pianist with a sure, serene touch, a completeness of thought and a classical sense of balance. Sandell, a Swede, started his career in 1976, touring internationally and playing with forces as diverse as Mats Gustafsson and Chris Cutler. His sound is elemental, and he plays a more experimentally dramatic music of balanced extremes. Both pianists speak an oblique harmonic language, a vocabulary closer to Schoenberg than Tatum. It's like listening to jumbled English: there's a litany full of familiar words, but with the grammar broken apart and reassembled. One must rely exclusively on the sound of the words and surrender the ties to their former meanings. Both men balance the full range of the piano; Graewe as if he's trying to recall and map an instant's glimpse of the night sky, and Sandell as if he's chasing cracks in the surface of an icy pond.

Sandell's Solid Musik contains eight individual improvisations, ranging in length from three-and-a-half to sixteen minutes. He possesses an acute clarity of line, and takes advantage of it with stunning improvised counterpoint: in "Not Liquid" (all but one of the pieces' titles have a Tao-like negative qualifier), the pianist begins with one voice, which quickly splits into two, and then three, bringing to mind Bach's three-part inventions. But the accord between the voices is precarious. After a line is born of another, an easy orbit between them usually lasts only a short time before some anomaly in one or the other sends them wobbling through distant dissonances and registers; yet Sandell accepts their ramifications, and seeks balances, or lets the lines fly away. It's a marvelous display. He also possesses an exquisite touch at the piano. On Solid Musik he uses a Baldwin SD-10 from which he draws luxurious sound qualities: the left hand sometimes sounds as if it's pulling the strings of a lute; the right, especially in the crystalline extreme upper register, hammers out notes like rain on a windshield. He is also an explorer of extended technique and silence. In some of his improvisations he seems to run his lines right off the piano, where they tumble into percussion pieces on the piano's case; at other times his sensitivity to sound shows itself in the exquisitely long decays he allows his chords.

As the title Fantasiestücke I-XIII suggests, Georg Graewe applies himself to the realization of thirteen numbered impromptus (to use Fred Van Hove's word). Graewe's approach to the art is more sober than Sandell's, and perhaps more easily beautiful. He is the more romantic of the two; which is not to say that he thunders and emotes at the keyboard, but that in his art he seems to give voice to subtle inner states. If his virtuosity is less compelling than Sandell's, he makes up for it with a greater sense of solidity in his music. To make a jazz comparison, Graewe is like Bill Evans to Sandell's Jaki Byard. Though there are marked exceptions in some of his improvisations, the meat of Graewe's exposition takes place in the middle of the keyboard. He arrives, in the more languorous pieces, like "VIII" and "XII", at a completeness of expression that puts me in mind of some of the preludes in Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. When he chooses to explore less stable avenues, as in "X", in which bubbling trails escape from the piano like air bubbles from deep sea vents, he does so with intelligent determination and thematic composure.

These two practitioners of non-idiomatic improvisation have much to offer. The improvisations of the old masters of Western music will never be recovered, but greatness in the work of the living can give us much to imagine. Graewe and Sandell reveal powerful currents of creativity in the world today, and through those currents provide new fuel for the old masters' myths while simultaneously kindling their own.