Sunday, August 21, 2011

Concert Review: Larry Karush, piano – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 8/19/2011

The Wayward Music website listed Larry Karush as a pianist who’d played with both Oregon and Steve Reich. That was enough to convince me to go hear him play.

The first half of the concert consisted of a single long piece, “The Wheel”. Mr. Karush stated that, when he was composing it, he didn’t know at first what to call it; and then happened to glance up at a poster on the wall – a Hubble Space Telescope image of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy.

The piece began with a couple of deep pedal points in the piano’s lowest register, and a fragment of a melody (a near quotation from Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question”). Intensity gathered and dissipated, several times.

“The Wheel” rotated majestically at five speeds simultaneously. Fastest: the right hand, carrying most of the melodies, interspersed with improvisations in blizzards of 32nd notes. Next fastest: the left hand, providing a continual, mystical, underpinning of minimalist-inspired rhythmic chords, often in 2nds and 4ths. Slower: every so often (the time interval didn’t seem to be exactly even), all motion came to a sudden culmination and stopped, and a deeper bass octave resounded, starting the music up again in a slightly different direction – like the shift in tonality in an organum by Perotin, or the sounding of the great gong ageng in the Javanese gamelan. Slower still: the music rose and fell in 5-minute (roughly) cycles; growing in volume, speed, dissonance, and overall intensity, then sinking back into itself to begin again. Slowest of all: “The Wheel” was itself a giant rotation, beginning nebulous, rising to a frantic improvisational climax in 9/4 time just past the two-thirds point, then subsiding back into the primordial nebulosity from whence it had arisen.

This was technically a jazz composition, and its organization was clearly from that genre: cyclic chord changes, improvisations involving “blue notes” and atonality derived from a tonal matrix, intense rhythms that controlled the melody (not the other way around, as in classical). However, I looked in vain for jazz influences. There was a little bit of Keith Jarett (part two of “The Köln Concert” comes to mind) but other than that, nothing. Rather, the audible influences were 20th-century classical: Debussy and his progeny (Messiaen, Takemitsu); Boulez, Scriabin, Ginestera, Ives (the latter two without their nationalistic references). The overarching structure was in fact “grand symphonic”, by which I mean those late 19- and early 20th-century works in which gigantism is an intrinsic part of the piece (i.e. Mahler symphonies, the Busoni concerto). But, it was played on a solo piano in a jazz-based idiom. Such hybrid compositions have of course been done in the past: Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Wynton Marsalis’ much longer “Blood on the Fields” are examples. Both of these, like “The Wheel”, are in totality much greater than the sum of their bicultural parts.

For the second half of the concert, Mr. Karush played improvisations in various jazz and blues styles (stride, boogie-woogie with a hint of Bartok), and his arrangements of other people’s arrangements of jazz standards (including a version of “Body and Soul” called “Hawking’s Parallel Universe”). They were nice, for the most part, but to me they suffered from the Mark O’Connor / Van Halen syndrome: technique for technique’s sake; playing a lot of fast, crisp notes to show that it is possible to play a lot of fast, crisp notes. Be that as it may, his technique was as impressive as any pianist I’ve every heard. I would have been more satisfied if these “comprovisations” had been stylistically jazz standards but structured more along the lines of “The Wheel”, however.

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