Normally when I'm digging through a CD's liner notes and a large amount of blather is expended on the technical aspects of the recording or the instrumentation (in this case, Mr. Ravenscroft's piano, a Paolo Fazioli Model 278), I am given to wonder if enough time was spent on the music. See, for example, all the hoopla surrounding the release in 1976 of Lou Reed's METAL MACHINE MUSIC and its Binaural Recording System. Trouble was, the 'music' (and normally I like this sort of thing) was 64 minutes of amplifier feedback sweater fuzz. No dynamics, nothing! So what was the point?
No fears of that here! Mr. Ravenscroft and companions (Rob Schuh, percussion; Steve Millhouse, acoustic bass) turn in a very convincing performance; the kind of music one can have an internal dialogue with, at the end of a long hard day with a glass of Scotch if you like. Or not. See, I think that there may have been a time when listening was a more active endeavor than it is now. Time was, back before the invention of the player piano and when music recording was not yet the rule, one bought the sheet music, went home and played it. You didn't know how to play an instrument? Too damn bad. Learn. Today, shorn of the sort of free time that was only available to the landed gentry (and their modern equivalent), it's easy to find or look for musical statements which do not allow for one's impressions to interweave with that which is heard. That's the internal dialogue I was mentioning, and it's essential for the health of one's gray matter. Mr. Ravenscroft is a master at that very thing. His method is in some ways reminiscent of the late Bill Evans in his use of grace notes, but evocative as well of Eric Satie (especially in mind of his famous/ infamous "Gymnopedies") in that Ravenscroft understands the play between silence and tone. Unlike Keith Jarrett, say, Ravenscroft will fill in the backdrop with only as many notes as are needed for the careful listener to flesh out the whole in her/his mind. At the end of disc 2, a solo improvised performance in 17 sections, "Transcendence" takes a simple theme worthy of Vince Guaraldi at his most emotional and least sentimental, and rhapsodizes expertly to a pinnacle of feeling. You'd have to hear it, and hopefully you will. None of this reinvents the toaster, but it's open and honest and only triggers enough of one's neurons to goose one to set the remainder firing as well. Lovely.
As to the trio CD, some damn fine music also. A lengthy meditation on Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" is, in contrast to "Transcendence," a marvel of control and finding openings in a very tightly-structured composition. If you look at the underpinnings of "Infant Eyes" (which, its heavy Coltrane influence aside, remains the exception to the oft-repeated rule that Shorter is only a disciple of 'Trane in a remote way,) you will find that as in "Naima" the melody is compact, as elegant as a fugue and darn near impossible to add to. If one bought the rights to "Infant Eyes" and tried to make a pop song out of it (we should all be so lucky,) how would somebody write a chorus to that melody? A bridge? A middle eight? Never mind! This trio take opens with Millhouse in a very meditative space, only obliquely referring to the song's root chords, and for much of the first half of ten minutes he and the mellifluous Schuh float the beat in a kind of "After The Rain" mode while Ravenscroft plays with the tune, draws out that phrase, compacts this one and finally gives a pithy variation. One part of the melody runs repeatedly through his hands while the rhythm section steps up again, and at the end Ravenscroft hints at a sort of Broadway big finish but, not surprisingly, elects not to complete the thought quite that way. Out much the way we came in, with a nattering of Schuh's floor toms and a dream of grace notes. Hell of a job, fellows.
Ravenscroft's own tracks ("RE: A Person I Met," "Phil's Fill" and "The Witness") on the trio disc are elastic and well-tempered (no clavichords required). A certain feel of the waltz or the foxtrot ghosts them in places; the man is clearly a student of forms we should be reminded about more often.I have only one cavil about Schuh's playing: he has a highly deft poly- and hyperrhythmic touch, but I'd like to hear the tom and the snare a little more often, for my own part. You may not be so demanding! Millhouse is far better miked than most bassists I've heard lately (thanks to engineer Bernie Becker and producer John Gibson,) and his method is as sparse as Schuh's is busy with a nice woody cello-like tone. In Schuh's defense, he colors "Phil's Fill" with a nice application of the bell tree. Just right.
The solo meditations are that exactly. Many of the bits here are under two minutes and probably could have been better filled out, but this is improv, to be fair, and a fellow who's been around as long as Ravenscroft has knows the rules. Be evocative, don't quote too much, and (unless one is Cecil Taylor) not too far afield, please. Structure plays against dissonances here, all carefully vetted, and delights (such as a fleeting reference to "Inch Worm" in "Insights") abound. Another example: "Frenzies" ends with a very satisfying 'thud'! I didn't know Ravenscroft had that in him, but Jazz is, as Whitney Balliett had it, the sound of surprise.
Clearly this double CD release casts an eye back towards how the Modern Jazz Quartet 'classicized' the form, but even if you don't favor the well-tailored 'in' mindset, I suggest you try this. Very rewarding with repeated listenings, like all good music, and there will be many.
by Kenneth Egbert