Rave reviews for “Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1”
Ever-active Hudson Valley keyboardist Neil Alexander seemingly does it all—playing jazz fusion synth and electric piano in NAIL, the Mahavishnu Project, and Mr. Gone; out-there acid rock with Pink Floyd tribute band The Machine; and, at Beacon’s Howland Cultural Center on August 10, a centennial-celebrating performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But it wasn’t until the recording of Darn That Dream that Alexander at last realized his own dream, of making a solo acoustic piano album. And, just a few seconds into the opening version of the Jimmy Van Heusen / Eddie DeLange title standard, it becomes crystal clear that the wait has been more than worthwhile. In fact, one could say that that track, “Darn That Dream (Version 1),” makes a fine encapsulation of the approach Alexander displays throughout this disc: that of twinkling touches recalling his classical training and the freewheeling, impressionistic flights of his predominant postbop influences of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans, as well as the shimmering, stride-into-bop runs of the great Art Tatum. But despite the album’s many moody interludes, the hammering hands of Alexander’s hard-fusion background aren’t brushed aside completely; see the thundering “A Question Of Energy,” which is full of frantic passages and brings to mind Cecil Taylor dive-bombing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Pristinely captured over two dates at the Falcon in Marlboro, Darn That Dream is a delight for admirers of exemplary jazz piano.
Each year a number of outstanding solo jazz piano CDs are released, and two stand-outs so far in 2013 are Neil Alexander’s Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1, and Billy Lester’s Storytime. Both pianists are based in towns just above New York City, Alexander in Marlboro, and Lester in Nyack, and both fifty-somethings are unveiling their first solo albums rather late in their respective careers. Alexander’s influences include Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and Classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, whose “The Rite Of Spring” he is currently performing in its Centennial year in a solo piano arrangement. The frequent intensity of Alexander’s playing can also be traced to time spent on synth and electric piano with his fusion band NAIL, and his work with Pink Floyd tribute band The Machine and such other groups as The Mahavishnu Project. Among Lester’s many influences are Lennie Tristano, Tristano disciple (and Lester’s teacher) Sal Mosca, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. As shown on his trio and quartet sessions, Lester is fond of skillfully reharmonizing or inverting the chords of standards to the point that the original tune is often virtually undetectable. Alexander and Lester take separate paths stylistically on these solo recordings, but the end result is the same– spirited, compelling, purposeful, and technically accomplished piano jazz.
Alexander presents two versions of the title tune, “Darn That Dream.” The first contains an expansive intro leading to a tender theme reading with Tatumesque runs and flourishes and fresh chordal voicings. His long thematic development is rhapsodic and emotionally moving, and displays his classical training. The heartfelt reprise is carefully detailed and anything but rudimentary. The second “Darn That Dream” has a yearningly introspective, sparse beginning that evolves into a much disguised rumination on the melody that artfully examines the tune’s chordal and harmonic treasures in alternatively serene or powerful stages. The opening of Alexander’s “Whisper of Angels” alludes to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” and Bill Evans’ pianism, but the composer mixes gentle lyricism with exclamatory escalations in a way that’s truly his own, grasping and holding onto your attention for the nearly 12-minute entirety. Pat Metheny’s “Sirabhorn” receives an initially pensive and ultimately dramatic interpretation, Alexander’s active left hand complementing his cascading or darting runs and deeply resonant chordal passages. The impressionistic culmination is masterful and riveting.
The percussive, urgent attack by Alexander on his “A Question of Energy” is reminiscent of Corea, although this piece as a whole has a modern classical aura with dissonant asides and assertive left-hand figures. Alexander’s intro to “My Foolish Heart” is unusually tempestuous for this standard, and even his thematic exploration has an edginess to its lyricism, as he rousingly wears his emotions on his sleeve. “Blues for Martha (Graham)” also opens percussively and tumultuosly, with reverberating chords, followed by swirling, rumbling runs, and never lets up in this vein in a tribute to the modern dance luminary that is certainly modern but definitely not a blues. Among the other tracks is the final “Epilogue,” where an ingratiating circular left-hand construct draws you into its sweet, yet emotionally stirring content, bringing to mind Jarrett’s similarly rapturous flights of fancy. Alexander’s lovely piano sound and focused melodicism easily sustain interest for the full seven minutes.
George W. Harris / Jazz Weekly.com – May 2, 2013
There are hints of Jarrett and more than a dash of Tatum to his approach to notes, runs and fill ins, but his touch is all his own. He’s got an assertive and bright pair of hands, and is able to go from tensile forte to delicate pianissimo without a hitch in his get-along.
Moinsound.wordpress.com – April 5th 2013
…an album which carries its own message beyond the jazz mainstream, delivers this message beautifully, and at the same time remains truly accessible even to non-radical audiences. When was the last time you could say that about an album?
Grady Harp – March 13, 2013
If there is a consistent message here it is the extraordinary pianistic technique that comes from Neil Alexander’s hands. He flutters effortlessly up and down the keyboard like a moth and yet at the same time he has such an intrinsic sense of jazz rhythm that his communication of a line, embellished by riffs of his own that makes his performances here spectacular. Yes, the melodies of the works are offered (try to get past the exquisite beauty of `My Foolish Heart’ as he pulls it from the ivories) but equally important to him are the wide ranging mutations on themes he complexly offers. The man is gifted and he is on his own here!
Brent Black, criticaljazz.com – February 14th 2013
The depth of flavor, variety and lyrical sense of adventure all allow this release to sound better with each subsequent spin of the disc. Impressive. 4 Stars.
Pierre Giroux, – Feb 11th 2013
It’s a daring and self-assured artist that ventures in the arena of a solo piano recital whether that is a concert hall or a recording studio. Clearly Neil Alexander has no such trepidation as evidenced by the release of “Darn That Dream”. Mr. Alexander shows an extensive pianistic quality that favors conception and courage.
John Burdick / hudsonvalleyalmanacweekly.com – December 13th 2012
…This is challenging music for player and for listener. Alexander often does not demarcate the head from the solo; composition and improvisation seem more 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; in the vertical dimension of dynamics and in its hyperwide pitch range, Alexander’s playing is often spiky, grand and extreme. 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.