Welcome welcome welcome! If you’ve found your way here it’s most likely because you’re interested in my brand new SOLO PIANO CD, “Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1″. You’ve found it!
The wonderful artwork is by Linda Palmer (@ponor on Twitter):
Neil Alexander releases his first solo piano CD, a project brewing since first stepping before an audience as a young musician in Nyack, NY. Neil is known for blazing synthesizer & electric keyboard with his own group “NAIL”, “The Mahavishnu Project”, and “The Machine” as well as association with equally inventive musicians Steve Lawson, Herb Deutch, Trip Wamsley, Tony “Thunder” Smith and James Musser. “Darn That Dream” represents a return to Neil’s roots, and demonstrates his love of and connection to the piano.
Recorded at the Falcon in Marlboro NY, Darn that Dream contains seven original compositions and four standards: two radically different passes at the Van Heusen/DeLange title track, an impressionistic reading of the early Pat Metheny tune “Sirabhorn” and “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. Composition and improvisation seem 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; 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 hyper-exactitude 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. An additional feature is an acoustic version of “Everyman”, the single from NAIL’s 2007 release “Tugging at the Infinite”.
The release of “Darn That Dream” coincides with Neil Alexander’s landmark “100 Years of Spring” performance series, a sponsored project of Artspire, a Program of NYFA, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. These appearances celebrate the centennial of the controversial May 1913 Premier in Paris of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and a goal to bring the piece to a wide audience in concerts and education settings. Neil’s passion for the composition inspired his own solo-piano arrangement of the orchestration. To honor the spring season and food, the program continues to be available to farm/food markets internationally. A complete version of “The Rite”, and concert excerpts from the tour will comprise “Solo Piano Vol. 2”, slated for 2014.
You can also read my blog post with some history and the whole process Here.
Here are the liner notes in text:
“This is who I am at the piano” – Liner Notes for “Darn that Dream” by Paul Stark – Summer, 2012 Sometimes a dream can take a long time to come true. Neil’s dream to record the solo piano album you now hold in your hands began nearly as soon as he understood he was destined to live a musician’s life. Given the kind of musician he became, it’s no surprise it has taken a hell of a lot of work over a whole lot of years for him to feel like we was up to doing the kind of job he required of himself. Through all the years, he’s kept his dream alive. As he puts it, “I always wished I could record a solo piano album, some part of me always wanted to.”
I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with Neil about music, his development as a musician over the last three decades, and hear his remarks and insights on each one of his extraordinary tracks. The awareness is never far from him that he’s taken it upon himself to claim a place, however modest, in the long and storied tradition of people who have sat down to play the piano, alone and without a net. As he puts it, “given the piano literature that’s out there, releasing a solo piano record is daunting beyond belief.” Having done just that, he says is “kind of a huge milestone in my musical career.” And just how modest or significant his place in the tradition turns out to be will not be decided by us but by history.
One can speculate that there’s three things going on at once with this record. Neil’s summing up and making a definitive (so far) statement in a lifelong conversation he’s been having with his musical comrades and with music itself; and he’s producing music, as he has in a variety of contexts and genres, for fans who show up ready to get something from what he does; and his best understanding to date of one of the most succinctly stated philosophies ever: Life = Music.
He’s an ardent participant and an attentive student of the infinitely subtle and incredibly varied panorama of life. And, as if that’s not enough of a high-wire act, he can offer a few glimpses of what’s really going on in his own experience of the conversation he’s having with the core realities of music. Neil is definitely not fooling when he talks about jazz as “serious” music. “Elements and techniques in jazz are just as difficult and challenging as in classical. Benny Goodman and Wynton Marsalis both made well respected classical recordings.” And there’s perhaps no other tradition in music that’s pulled itself up by its bootstraps quite as much as jazz – inventing itself in some ways out of thin air. “Jazz in its early years was all about interpreting popular music.” So it makes all the sense in the world that Neil begins by offering us an interpretation of “Darn that Dream,” a pop song. The music was recorded in two back to back sessions in January, 2011, engineered by Neil and the invaluable Allen Wentz. There’d been previous attempts over the years, abandoned because Neil wasn’t satisfied with his performance. “I put very high demands on myself from a technical perspective. I always knew there were certain predetermined things that had to be in it, a place where there’s this kind of left-handed activity, a place where there’s a certain two-handed harmony, a lot of other things. I could never get them all in. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I have different criteria. I’m not sure if they’re all in or not. But the record’s made.” to go back and forth from pieces that come from a strong place and pieces that come from a more gentle place.
Neil strives to be a certain kind of musician, one that’s able to perform on multiple instruments and in multiple genres. In his words, “I don’t want to be another cookie cutter jazz pianist. I’ve heard hundreds of them. I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of music, electronica, rock and roll, funk, folk music forms, modern classical, so I’m less inclined to commit to one single thing, like Advanced Bebop Harmony. I’ve seen amazing jazz musicians who in a different context don’t know what to do. I played once with a really fine jazz drummer, years ago, but when it came to playing a straight ahead rock beat, he couldn’t do it. I have always wanted to not be like that.”
Make no mistake, creating this record has been a labor of love, with a special emphasis on labor: “I spent a lot of time sequencing this album, putting the tracks in order so there’s a cohesive framework, to go back and forth from pieces that come from a strong place and pieces that come from a more gentle place.” And what about Neil’s conversation with music itself? It takes place on many levels, but an important part of the conversation is about harmony. Neil has been going where few musicians have gone before. As he puts it, I’m trying to “present some ideas about harmony that I’ve been developing for the last few years. These are ideas about how all keys are related. It’s like set theory and Venn diagrams. The key of A is one set, and the key of F# is another set, and there are places where they overlap, intersect. Every key has a relationship like that with every other key. And then you can start working with three keys, or four. Polymodality is a word I use. In playing, I’m finding the intersections of the keys and pushing back against the boundaries of those intersections.”
Of all things jazz is about, jazz is about improvisation. There’s a wide selection of improvisational pieces on the record, all with different moods and different energies. Let’s, once again, hear about it in his own words, “I’m working to develop skill as a pure improv player. I’m not there yet. Keith Jarrett can sit down in Carnegie Hall and just play for an hour and a half. Listening to people who are really good at this, people like Keith Jarrett or Pat Metheny, they’re spinning a web and each new strand is connected back to the central strand. I’ve been working on developing my own individual voice for the last 30 years.”
Now that the record’s done, he’s going to try to get it noticed. Musicians from all over are pulling for him. Steve Lawson, the virtuoso bass player and Neil’s good friend, is amazed by Darn that Dream and will be helping the record find its way in the world. And, given all his generosity, and there’s an awful lot of it, Neil’s also been generous enough to offer us a glimpse into his experience at the keyboard: “It was interesting to just play the piano. It puts me in a relaxed state of mind. It’s traditional. There’s a tradition of playing the piano. And sitting down to play the piano like this is terrifying. You have to be really honest. It speaks to your personal confidence, being willing to get behind whatever you’re playing. Coltrane said, ‘there are no wrong notes, only notes you don’t believe in.’ To get behind it 100% — that’s a challenge. It’s being non-judgmental: this is what it is, this is who I am at the piano.”
Now let’s go through this remarkable record track by track. All quotations are from Neil.
1) Darn That Dream (Jimmy Van Heusen & Eddie DeLange) (version 1). “This is a fairly difficult song as pop songs go. There have been lots of recordings of Darn That Dream by well known and not so well known jazz artists.” Let’s just take a moment to wish we could have been at one of the scant 13 performances of Swingin’ the Dream, the 1939 Broadway musical for which Darn that Dream was written. It was a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 1890’s New Orleans. The music was provided by Benny Goodman and his Sextet, Agnes de Mille choreographed and the cast included Louis Armstrong, Bill Bailey, the Dandridge sisters, Moms Mabley and Butterfly McQueen. What a night in the theatre that must have been.
2) Stop For A Moment (And Listen). “Some improv’s are from a strong place, and some are from a more gentle place. This is from a more gentle place. It’s my advice to teenagers: just stop for a second and pay attention. And for everyone. When I’m teaching I say, all sound is music. Take a walk and listen to everything, the traffic, the sounds the trees make, whatever’s flying in the air.”
3) A Question Of Energy. “This is another improv from a much more active place with a focus on contemporary classical music. The title focuses on our current crisis of energy. Everyone wants energy, but there’s all this argument about how much we need and how to get it.”
4) Whisper Of Angels. “This is a composition I wrote when I was coming home from the hospital with my wife and our new baby. I could not sleep, I’d been up for 24 hours and this music was going through my head. I wanted to go to sleep but the music would not stop. Finally I got out of bed, three in the morning, and sketched it out. And when I got up in the morning, 85% of it was there. I’ve playing it for years. When my daughter was younger, she’d ask me to play it at gigs. Which of course, I did.”
5) Everyman (the Flight Of The Falcon). “Everyman is a composition that appeared on Tugging at the Infinite, an acoustic version I did with Nail. I wrote it in 2005. It’s dedicated to all of us, it’s about us. I discovered it works well as a ballad as it does in a high energy electronic setting. It’s a ballad here. It has an Americana vibe. I have a love of classic American folk songs. Part of that love is in this song.”
6) Sirabhorn (Pat Metheny). “This is not that difficult a song, but it’s unusual. It’s from an early Pat Metheny album. It’s a ballad and it’s been in my repertoire for many, many years. Something like twenty years ago I discovered it has a good structure for a free jazz approach, ala Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, Ornette Colemen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago. He probably didn’t intend it as free jazz, but it’s a jumping off point – where you take it is up to you. I have never heard anyone else do it, so I wanted to put it on the record. It’s a good jumping off point for me, and it’s well-suited to my harmonic approach.”
7) The Traveler’s Tale. “This is the first thing I played in the session. We set up the mics and did a sound check, and then I just sat down and played. It’s fooling around but in a serious way – I learned a long time ago that when tape is rolling, everything counts. It’s the feeling of someone saying, I’ve just been through this amazing adventure. From the idea of when people lived far apart, before there was all this communication technology. And people would come from far away and tell a story that’s outside the experience of everyone in that town. A feeling of all these kids gathered around this old traveler guy, and he’s telling a story about how the bear came at me, but he wasn’t after me, he was after the lion behind me. When things were different from how they are now. Now, everybody has access to everything that happens to everyone else all the time.”
8) My Foolish Heart (Victor Washington/Ned Young). “Recording this song took a lot of confidence. An enormous number of amazing musicians have recorded this song. It’s on a couple of my all time favorite records, Bill Evans’ live album At the Village Vanguard, John McLaughlin on a record called Electric Guitarist – very different versions, but in both, the striking beauty of the song comes through. I’ve been playing this too for many, many years. I play it in small groups or solo. Not too many songs have been in my repertoire as long as this one. Oh, I love this one, it’s really that simple.”
9) Blues For Martha (Graham). This is the one improv on the record I came to with some particular concepts in mind. It’s “a response to years of playing for dance classes using Martha Graham technique. It’s in three movements, and it’s about what I learned from those dancers and from Martha.”
10) Darn That Dream (Jimmy Van Heusen & Eddie DeLange) (version 2). “Why 2 versions? I did 2 takes of most of the non-improv stuff. These 2 versions were different enough, radically different interpretations. They’re different approaches to the same problem, which is, how to navigate through the form and structure. Do it one way, come back and do it completely differently.”
11) Epilogue. “This was the last thing I recorded on the last day of recording. My goal was just to hit record and start playing. So I sat down to play this last piece. There’s a piece at the end of Pat Metheny’s album 80/81, a little tiny acoustic guitar piece, with a reflective quality. I wanted that same kind of vibe, the idea of wrapping up the record, a little introspective statement. It’s humble. It’s saying, now I’m going to say goodnight.”
(note: to get the bonus tracks, you need to download the whole CD….)
And if this wasn’t enough musical magic, there’s the bonus tracks:
1) Brise De Coeur (John McLaughlin). “John McLaughlin, he’s known for hard-hitting, blazing fast stuff with difficult structures. He doesn’t get enough credit for his work as a composer. This is one of his beautiful works as a composer and it’s not that well known, it’s tucked away on a record that wasn’t that well received [Concerto For Guitar And Orchestra "The Mediterranean"]. It’s an extraordinary tune, written for guitar and piano. The title means “break of heart” in French and yes, it has that feeling of having a broken heart, but it also has a feeling of empathy for the human condition, an almost spiritual sense of, yes, we all know life is hard, but we all have the divine in us even if we can’t see it. So, it’s bittersweet.”
2) Everyman (The Flight Of The Falcon) (Alternate Take). It’s good to have another interpretation of this tune. It’s pretty tough to get too much of any song with this Americana vibe, whose composer says, “I have a love of classic American folk songs. Part of that love is in this song.”
3) Recollections (Of The Time Before). This tune “looks back to a time before I was married and had a kid. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of past life, not past lives but, what was I doing, who was I hanging out with at 19, 20. There’s another piece called Memoirs Long Forgotten. It’s like someone finding your diary in a hundred years and reading it and going like, this was that person’s life.”
4) Look Back In Wonder. This song is similar to Recollections (Of The Time Before). It offers up something about Neil’s sense of our lives, how they move through time, and what we’re able to take and keep for ourselves from the time as it keeps passing by.
5) Whisper Of Angels (Alternate Take). It’s fitting that this song closes out this record, the record that’s Neil’s dream deferred, never forgotten, and finally realized. Clearly, something in the universe was rather insistent that this song, intact and entire, come through Neil and out into the world. Of all the reasons to make music, one of the most ancient and most profound is to celebrate the birth of one’s child. Who knows what it’s done for Rebecca to have a song written for her birth, to see her Dad perform it (so many times) up on stage. It’s certain whatever it’s done for her has been very, very good.