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Donal Fox Inventions Trio at Trinity-Pawling

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Oct 20th, 2018

From left: John Lockwood, Donal Fox, Yoron Israel

The Pawling Concert Series hosted Donal Fox Inventions Trio at Gardiner Theater at Trinity-Pawling School with half-moon working against passing clouds. Fox plays historically inflected jazz, jazz that is inspired by the past while it travels into the present. Some of Fox’s compositions function as an historical slide show arriving in the present and molded by Fox’s whimsy and infectious joy. Fox, a Steinway Artist, has been composer-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony as well as many others orchestras, and is the recipient of Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music.

Opening with “Aria in D Minor by Domenico Scarlatti,” his solo playing gathered propulsive steam as they transferred trains for “Scarlatti Jazz Suite,” while double bassist John Lockwood joined in and Yoron Israel accompanied them with drums and percussion. It was as if Scarlatti had hauled his keyboard onto an express train. They were flying and the mountains were going by.

 “Burst Forth My Tears” by lutist John Dowland (1563-1626) was next. Dowland, whom is thought to have composed most of the music for William Shakespeare’s late plays, is quite suited for improvisation since that was his practice. Dowland invented the thumb out technique which made the lute sound more like a clear harp than mumbling guitar. Here the piano line was running in and out of the heavy double bass and clacking, thumping drums.

“Fire Fly Suite” was a take-off on one of Bach’s 30 contrapuntal inventions. Fox offered any audience member a free cd if they could identify which one of the thirty, but I did not see any winners. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bach seemed to have evolved into a piano stride player.

“Variations on Ludovico Einaudi’s ‘I Gorni (The Days)’” offered a tour of the keyboard: it began in the upper register, then lower register, middle, lower, middle, and circled back to the upper register for conclusion as each day had its say on the keyboard. This piece sounded like it began with birds singing and ended with crickets (castanets) singing until silence.

“The Silver Fox” was a tribute to Horace Silver, a pianist famous for his melodies, who died four years ago. And, yes, there were wonderful melodies here, along with an allusion to a Beethoven sonata, and a strong bass line by Lockwood to compliment the piano.

Fox’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Ausencias” (Longing) delivered a delicious poetic melancholy. This was my favorite piece.

“Funky Mordent Blues” disguised more Bach counterpoint as bass and drums wove in-and-out around the piano. This trio was surging at top speed with this melody.

Fox said someone suggested that he put a good romantic number into his act, and so he composed “Davidsbündler” (David’s League), which was a musical society that Robert Schumann had founded. Fox appropriated some lyrical melodies from Schumann and went on the town with them. This, too, was really extraordinary.

Franz Schubert’s “Der Tod und Das Madchen” (Death and the Maiden) began with the Dies Irae motif, which turned into a funeral march. As in the New Orleans funeral tradition, the returning band begins with a slightly upbeat tune, yet when nearing their home starting point, they jazz up with raucous optimism. And so it was here.

“Inventions in Blue” closed out the night with a melody that was neither celebratory nor sad—just an anthology of blue notes that sang carelessly and seemingly effortlessly in way that brought us down to earth with a smile rather than a shout. Israel delivered a knockout drum solo along the way. Fox plays with such clean immediacy that the difficulty of his piano technique remains hidden. A video interview with Fox appears below.

The next concert in The Pawling Concert Series features “Visions of Mozart” with pianist Jeremy Denk and violinists Benjamin Beilman and Stefan Jackiw. This program at Gardiner Theater at 8 pm on November 30 will explore the influence of Mozart on composers like Handel, Shubert, Debussy, and Stravinsky. For more information go to