Grabowsky, Hannaford, Mayas (Melbourne/Berlin)

GIG: January 16, 2011 at Bennetts Lane

Piano soloists: Paul Grabowsky, Marc Hannaford, Magda Mayas

Martin Jackson and the Melbourne Jazz Cooperative gave us the chance to hear three very different piano soloists: Melbourne’s Paul Grabowsky and Marc Hannaford, and Berlin’s Magda Mayas on thoroughly prepared piano.

Paul Grabowsky

Paul Grabowsky

Shortly after Christmas one of my internet searches took me to an Australian Art Orchestra page of tributes to bassist Gary Costello, who died in 2006. The words collected here by fellow musicians and others who knew him well are definitely worth taking the time to read. They demonstrate not only that Gary was a friend and an inspiration to many, but that those in the music world are more than capable of expressing their deep feelings in words as well as through their playing or the performances they make happen.

The first in that long list of tributes was written by Paul Grabowsky. Every time I read his writing I marvel at how deftly he uses language and how well he conveys meaning. But I also must admit to being a bit annoyed that he is so good at communicating musically and yet so good at communicating in words. That’s a silly reaction, but I suppose it comes because I find writing about music is often a struggle, and Grabowsky seems to do it with ease.

Enough preamble. Grabowsky was the first piano soloist in an intriguingly diverse line-up. As I came in he was playing Coal for Cook, which he recorded in 1988 with the Wizards of Oz — Dale Barlow on tenor sax, Tony Buck on drums and Lloyd Swanton on bass. Grabowsky said he had been into Ornette Coleman when he wrote the piece. He followed that with Silverland, from his albums Tales of Time and Space (a personal favourite) and Big Adventure. What stood out for me in this solo version was its fluidity, how Grabowsky used the dynamics and the definite, strong presence that he has — it’s hard to define except to say that he grabs our attention and holds it.

In Angel, also from Tales, the notes tumbled and cascaded over each other so easily. It took a while for the familiar melody to drift in. Again Grabowsky used dynamics expressively. There was clarity in individual notes, which had great beauty as they skipped between pauses, then rolled on with the abandon and delight of a child descending a grassy hillside. Grabowsky caresses the keys, nurturing the notes, then without apparent haste summons them to grow in volume, splendour and power.

This set closed with The Fruit (Bud Powell), which was faster, jaunty, bouncy and fun, with plenty of melody mixed with verve and energy.

Marc Hannaford

Marc Hannaford

Marc Hannaford said he felt as if he was stuck between Bud Powell and prepared piano, which he was. His set opened with his version of an Elliot Carter piece followed without a break by a Jelly Roll Morton number.

I look foward to Hannaford’s playing because it is always interesting — in the good sense of that word. He uses and creates space in the music. He savours individual notes and chords. He lets them ring out. The way in which he uses dynamics can produce two concurrent conversations — one louder than the other. It’s like two planes, with differences in pace and volume creating the divide. A series of slower notes can act as an anchor while faster notes skip and prance over the top. Then they unite.

One slow, solemn passage seemed to emphasise the timbre of the notes, as well as evoking separateness and cohesion. The notes were not loud, yet they were compelling, developing and growing through evolving patterns. Briefly the piece leaned towards classical, reminding me of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the intricacy of the patterns. Then things fired up — it was thrilling stuff, broader and more encompassing in scope. Slow, solemn steps with an overlay of high notes ended the piece, which suddenly morphed into the rollicking fun of Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp (or something similar). My feet were immediately tapping and my face was smiling, but I looked around and the audience seemed very serious.

At this point I decided if I had any skills as a promoter (not so) I’d like to put Grabowsky and Hannaford on at BMW Edge and get a packed audience to hear them do this solo piano gig — surely people would love it.

Hannaford finished with “a quick version of a tune I like”. It was slow, chordal and deliberate, with lots of space.

Magda Mayas

Magda Mayas

I’ve heard Erik Griswold a few times on prepared piano, but this was thoroughly prepared piano. Mayas spent a long time setting up her array of percussive implements and was extremely busy “under the hood” during the pieces. I admit to being so fascinated by the way she was achieving sounds, and watching the reflection in the grand’s lid of her hands at work, that for periods I was not concentrating fully on the music. That’s a pity, but one of the pitfalls of this type of performance.

Magda Mayas

Magda Mayas

The music was more cohesive than I had expected, developing gradually like a plot line and coming in surges, like breathing or ocean waves. The sounds were often short and discrete, yet there was a sense of continuity. At one point Mayas’s playing seemed like an oscillating radio signal. But is thinking that really approaching this music in the wrong way? It seems as if I had to find something I could liken the music to rather than just hearing it. Amazing sounds emerged — thunder magnified, creaking, aching. (Can you hear aching? Well, maybe this was what it sounds like.)

In “another short piece” Maya produced in my mind another set of likenesses — cow bells, spurts like the ends of dying catherine wheels, a soundscape of fireflies or the insect world magnified. There was muted dissonance, wavering and wandering, with occasional keyboard notes interspersed. Her playing was dextrous, deft, assured and swift.

Prepared piano

Prepared piano

I’d like to revisit Mayas and try to avoid any focus on how she made sounds or to what those sounds were similar. Then I could perhaps just hear them in a more direct, “purer” sense.

The Melbourne Jazz Coop, Martin Jackson and Bennetts Lane deserves bouquets for this trio of soloists.

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