Fearless improvisation hallmarks two new releases: First Set, from pianist Carol Liebowitz and saxophonist Nick Lyons, and Tell a Star, from vocalist Maryanne de Prophetis.
Carol Liebowitz and Nick Lyons, First Set (Line Art Records)
“Freely improvised music”—it’s a term that can raise alarms in the stoutest of listeners. It’s been used to legitimize all sorts of undisciplined caterwaulings closer to primal scream therapy than music. But pianist Carol Liebowitz and saxophonist Nick Lyons enliven and elevate that term. Their integrity, uncompromising commitment to living in the moment, and sheer musicality make every encounter an artistic adventure. First Set (Line Art Records), their new release, invites you to join the duo on eight improvisational excursions that carry you away from the everyday.
Seven of the tracks were recorded live in May 2012, part of an informal Sunday concert series at the loft of the late pianist/composer/teacher Connie Crothers. The eighth track was laid down in the studio in 2007. All but two of the tracks are full-on improvisations. The remaining two are contrafact compositions by Crothers, “Carol’s Dream,” built on “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” and “Roy’s Joy,” based on “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.”
“Carol’s Dream” opens the album in mystery, and its muscular whimsy sets the stage for the remainder of the program. Lyons’ expressive tone has an almost human vocal quality, and Liebowitz’s visceral command of the piano’s sonorities, her skillful use of the pedals, and her lightning-quick reflexes create a lush environment for exploration. Highlights include “Turquoise Echo,” illuminated by Liebowitz’s otherworldly chords against Lyons’ questioning, probing sax. On “Twain Shall Meet,” Lyons sails over a lake of sound from Liebowitz. “The Very Thing” adds a touch of boogie, with an assertive solo from Liebowitz that turns tender and searching. “Reverie on a Sunday Afternoon” has the elasticity of a dream, reminding us that both time and space are infinitely pliable, while the propulsive “Roy’s Joy” takes an angular Monk-like attack.
Both players evince an acute sensitivity to one another and to their own internal impulses, keeping the music alive and unpredictable across a wide expanse of human feeling. You may not come away humming the tunes, but your ears will be humming from the get-go.
Maryanne de Prophetis, Tell a Star, (ENNA Records)
On her latest release, Tell a Star (ENNA Records), vocalist Maryanne de Prophetis offers an often luminous recording that places her voice as first in a quartet of very sympathetic peers that includes Ron Horton (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Frank Kimbrough (piano)—her longtime trio collaborators—and drummer/percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. De Prophetis’s clear, warm mezzo graces nine original and well-crafted songs with wordless vocals, impressionistic lyrics, and poetic recitations.
De Prophetis has a knack for melody: the title track’s melodic line hooks into the ear as firmly as a show tune, and “Piper’s Dream” has the feel of a songbook standard in its line. But the quartet focuses on elaborating the meaning and feeling crystallized in the lines rather than on impressing them into your consciousness. The repertoire mixes composed and freely improvised music, and sometimes the line between the two is intentionally blurred.
While there are lovely solos aplenty—Horton’s abstracted swing on “Piper’s Dream” and Kimbrough’s Latin/blues walkabout on “Rosa”—it’s the interactions between the musicians that steal the show. From small details—the way Horton’s flugelhorn shadows the vocal in the title track or the delicate percussion behind voice and piano at the beginning of “Two Folk Songs”—to the broad, painterly strokes in the audacious ensemble improv on “Plainsong,” the hypersensitive awareness of the musicians to one another’s contributions capture the listener.
Some of the poetry got past me. Maybe with time I’ll catch up to it, but de Prophetis shines brightest for me when she is singing wordlessly, shaping the texture and articulation of her instrument to a singular purpose—as on the opener, “Ombra,” whose plangent refusal to resolve creates a satisfying tension.
The tunes, for the most part, inhabit thoughtful spaces, but “Rosa,” whose title character is an inspired creation, enlivens the proceedings with a Latin beat, and group improvs on “Two Folk Songs” and “Holy Cow” get into some wild territory. Taken together, the songs offer an encounter with poetic musicians who swim deep.
© 2016 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.