The piano is music laid bare – or Western music, at least: the whole theory and matrix of it spread out as upon an axis or a grid. Perhaps other instruments are better-suited to lyrical and emotive expression: those on which you blow, for example, and those on which finger wiggles and the language of touch produce a direct, less mechanically mediated effect. But to the purpose of solo composition and performance, the piano is a world alone.
With ten of its 88 notes addressable at any time (more with fancy pedalwork and finger gimmickry), the full spectrum of sonority and harmony is always on tap. The piano’s capacity for complexity and counterpoint is limited only by the neurological conditioning of the player. And the piano offers the gaping, extreme dynamic range that one would expect of the instrument named the “softloud.” For all these reasons, the pianoforte issues a standing invitation to solo exploration and solo virtuosity.
Enter Neil Alexander, a dexterous and adventurous keyboardist and composer from Newburgh, known to fans of jazz, fusion and progressive music via the Mahavishnu Project, the Machine and his own exceptional prog/fusion band NAIL. Well along into a wide-ranging career with an emphasis on electronic work, Alexander now offers his first solo piano recording, Darn that Dream. Why the wait? The CD’s press release comes up just short of saying, “because this is not something to be undertaken lightly.”
A typical Alexander performance finds the artist commanding a NASAlike bank of consoles, keyboards, laptops and non-traditional controllers as if he were…I dunno, German or something. But Hemingway called the simple empty page the “great white bull,” and perhaps we need a comparable metaphor for what solo piano performance represents to the modern keyboardist. The time comes in the life of every serious player when she must let go of the filter cutoff knob, step out of the spaceship and “ride the terrible zebra.” (Sorry, Ernest; I’ll keep working on it.)
Recorded primarily at the Falcon in Marlboro on a Yamaha C9, Darn that Dream contains seven original compositions and four covers: two radically different passes at the Van Heusen/DeLange title track, an impressionistic reading of the early Pat Metheny tune “Sirabhorn” and, again from the book of standards, “My Foolish Heart,” a song immortalized on piano by the great Bill Evans among others. It thus situates itself as a jazz recording, and it certainly is that; but Alexander’s gestures are as likely to come from the classical world at any given moment, and even, on occasion, from the becalmed realm of the New Age, though the placidity never lasts long.
This is challenging music for player and for listener. Alexander often does not demarcate the head from the solo; composition and improvisation seem more deeply intermingled from the get-go. Moments of accessible beauty are frequent and fleeting, giving way to the more difficult gratifications of advanced harmonic improvisations and frenetic, percussive fits and spells. For the most part, this project favors slower, expressive tempos and rubato, but it is far from meditative and serene; in the vertical dimension of dynamics and in its hyperwide pitch range, Alexander’s playing is often spiky, grand and extreme. Some solo pianists prefer to paint exclusively with the piano’s felt and wood; Alexander is not afraid of hammer and steel and the high peaks of the grand. His calling card is his intensity, his wholehearted willingness to embrace the dramatic range of the instrument.
The roiling bass lines of “A Question of Energy” recall the hyperexactitude of Chick Corea. Exquisite ballads such as “Stop for a Moment (and Listen)” and “Whisper of Angels” share some of the Impressionism of Evans and Jarrett, but always with a greater propensity to upset the applecart in ways that are exciting and gripping. The bipolar “Blues for Martha (Graham)” suggests that Alexander is not entirely at odds with Cecil Taylor and the other action pianists of the world.
Darn that Dream’s most consumer-friendly moment comes halfway through with the knowingly titled “Everyman (Flight of the Falcon),” a respite of lucid, radio-ready folk/jazz melodicism. If the listener finds himself wanting “more of this,” then the listener should be assured that plenty of this rhapsodic, lyrical and passionate playing is to be found throughout this fine CD. You just need to meet the artist halfway to find it. So go ahead: Ride the terrible zebra.
With the purchase of the complete Darn that Dream collection download from Alexander’s webpage [https://music.nailmusic.com] come five bonus tracks, liner notes written by writer/activist Paul Stark and a lead sheet for Alexander’s ballad “Whisper of Angels.”