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Exploring Music: Eminently Listenable--A Waltz Dressed in Blue

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

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Spencer Bennett


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One of the best investments public radio makes in educating its listeners is the weekly Marian McPartland pro­gram ''Piano Jazz. '' The format is sim­ple: Marian sits at one grand and her guest at another and for a half hour they explore each other's style and the history of jazz piano. One of the delights for those of us on the other end of the dial is hearing both musi­cians work and then rework chords and the improvisational line while discussing the logic and emotion of their rehearsal.

Although I have not heard him on ''Piano Jazz," Dick Hyman surely must have been a guest. For one thing, he and McPartland share a keen historical interest in the full range of jazz composition as well as building into their own playing a great variety of ideas that represent the best of the past. For another, both are proficient technicians who pay a good deal of at­tention to structure, ensuring that a piece has an introduction, text, and conclusion. Both are Aristotelian and do construction in a classic mode.

This release is a prime example of Hyman's sensitive eclectic voicings. In itself it is a virtual compendium of songs that seem to have been explicit1y designed for the orchestrational possibilities of the piano. There are two Sondheim tunes to surprise us with their oblique melodies and slightly askew phrasing as though reality is slightly out of balance, which it is for Sondheim . There is Gershwin's poignant ''My Man's Gone Now'' with its haunting lament. Miles Davis' ''All Blues'' is here with a full modal ex­ploration. The rest are ballads with the exception of an odd, enchanting mazurka by Delius. The twist for the album concept is that all are done· in waltz time and most in minor keys.

Hyman's treatment of his material is mellow and tasteful; that statement does not do him justice, however. There is a lot of .the influence of Ted­dy Wilson and a touch of Tatum in his right hand. His melody lines are clean and crisp if not overly inventive. I think it is the left hand which will in­trigue most pianists for it is there that the compositional sense prevails.

On Sondheim's ''You Must Meet My Wife'' he sets a different mood in every chorus by revising a set of minor seventh chords into ascending and descending ladders of inspiration. His rolls throughout ''All Blues'' en­sure the texture of Miles' original in­tention for the piece. And Hyman's own number, ''Waltzin' Without the 'G', '' reminds me of Dave Brubeck's skipping ''A Raggedy Waltz'' done with the quartet in the early 60s.

In short, Hyman's experience as an arranger and composer predominates his sensibility as a player. We are left with the impression of having been masterfully swept along through a framework of emotional transitions within each selection, only to discover yet another band of grada­tions in the next cut. This is music which is enlightening while remain­ing eminently listenable.

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