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Three on a piano

Artful improvization
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 20th, 2016

On Saturday night at Bard’s LUMA Theater three pianists participated in a program of jazzed-up classical music and re-arranged jazz classics on double piano.  In this unusual program Brazilian pianist André Mehmari led the project to re-arrange music. Classical pianist Tanya Gabrielian began with J.S. Bach’s French Suite in C minor to which Mehmari played an improvised contemporary commentary on Bach.

While I was not sure what to make of this, I found the next piece far more exciting: a Scarlatti Sonata, K. 466. Gabrielian played Scarlatti much slower than customary as Mehmari riffed in counterpoint what sounded more like the liquid trills and poignant pauses of Debussy. The dry cerebral (and even caustic) wit of Scarlatti was transformed into late Impressionistic music. The clock on Franz Schubert’s Themes and Variations sounded like it was turned back into early salon Romanticism resembling the compositions of John Field with an occasional flash of Chopin: an odd balancing act of early and later Romanticism completed its contest with a preference for the earlier mood music of Field. All pieces were played with piano music.

After intermission pianists generally played from memory. Chris opened up with a version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” one of the most fertile and influential tunes in the history of jazz. Mehmari then joined Pattishall in a madcap version of P.J. Johnson’s famous “Charleston” in which one could discern retro elements of ragtime. It was no surprise that Scott Joplin’s “Solace” followed in which riffs of a Philip Glass-style occasionally appeared as ragtime wandered in and out of abstraction. The friendly duo of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had come up with a dizzy two-piano recording called “Tonk,” which was then rendered to perfection with humor, pizzazz, and delicacy when required.  

Mehmari and Pattishall performed a version of Antonio Jobim’s “Rain on the Roses,” which was the apex of the concert. (Jobim was the king of Brazilian music and did albums with Frank Sinatra and Stan Getz, who popularized Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema.”) Since nothing could possibly top this climax of Mehmari’s mesmerizing performance of this long, lyrical masterpiece, a comic turn was necessary: three pianists playing a three-piano mad-cap composition "Golligwog Cakewalk" by Debussy. With the two men sharing a piano stool, there was much comedy concerning reaching notes over the other side of the keyboard, switching positions, apparent pranks.

This kind of musical showmanship reminded me of a famous anecdote about Haydn and Mozart. Haydn asked Mozart if he could compose a musical piece that he thought Haydn couldn’t play but that Mozart could. Haydn couldn’t play it and asked Mozart to show him. The piece began in the middle of the keyboard, yet right and left hand split to the far ends. Notes suddenly appeared in the middle of the keyboard. Mozart showed Haydn how to play it, but he resorted to using his nose. There was a bit of this kind of thing going on while Gabrielian ethereally soared above the mayhem. But sanity and romance triumphed as all three pianists began to agree on the theme and melody for a happy and more serious conclusion.

The whole evening was a lyrical romp. This event was co-presented by The Catskill Jazz Factory. Listen to an André Mehmari improvisation video below.