Alone with Duke
Of the all the musical configurations jazz pianists might work in, the solo format is the most demanding. Keyboardists have to generate all three musical elements-melody, harmony and rhythm-all by themselves. Like the plate spinners on the old-time variety shows, the lone pianist instantly designs a personal little solar system and then proceeds to animate it. It's the most realized example of the instrument's potential, and in the hands of a skilled technician and interpreter, the instrument truly lives up to it's capacity as an orchestra in a box. The solo format is also the most revealing for a pianist. There's no rhythm support from bassists and drummers, no hiding within the ensemble, no relying on the thematic gifts of soloists, no identity subordination in deference to a singer. Like a crystal clear x-ray, the solo pianist quickly reveals all musical strengths and weaknesses. With this album of solo interpretations of Duke Ellington as evidence, pianist David Morgenroth sounds extremely healthy. The first thing you notice about him is his authoritative attack and rhythmic propulsion. Like all of the best jazz pianists, he carries his own rhythm section in his left hand. Duke wrote "Cotton Tail" as a swing feature for Ben Webster's swaggering tenor saxophone. Morganroth's bass lines swing that piece relentlessly. He's the rare contemporary jazz pianist whose drive harkens back to the days when a lone 'tickler" could move a whole room of dancers at a rent party. Conversely, he reconsiders "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" as a light waltz, yet it's just as swinging in it's own way. His reworking of "Prelude to a Kiss" as a jaunt brings to mind Jimmy Rowles, the past piano master who could inject rhythm into any ballad, no matter how slow. Strong pulse aside, Morgenroth is no pounder. His delicate touch on the ballads brings out the promise of beauty that Ellington wrote into his mood pieces. Hear the range of touch on Duke's gorgeous "The Single Petal of a Rose." On this most introspective of pieces, David moves from an awed whisper to a declarative application. And how many present-day jazz pianists know, let alone perform, this most exquisite example of Ellingtonia? Inclusion of the one-chord "C Jam Blues," a metric reworking of "I'm Just a Lucky So and So" or straightforward rhythm tunes like "Love You Madly" and "Squeeze Me" might seem odd choices for a serious piano program. But David knows that the simpler the pieces, the more room for exploration. He revels in the 12/8 time signature-either stated outright or implied-and is more than conversant with the work of blues masters, from Pete Johnson to Gene Harris. Notice how Morgenroth subtly moves from the feel of gospel to the blues on "Come Sunday." For a Missoula, Montana native, he deftly taps into the Southern Baptist current of "Jump For Joy." David studied with jazz piano great Fred Hersch for five years. Hearing the crystalline reverence of David's version of "Melancholia," it's tempting to imagine the kind of delving into the deeper recesses of the piano. Both artists can reach that place in music that transcends style, form--even the instrument itself-and arrives at human communication that eludes explanation yet touches the heart. Ellington scholar Stanley Dance addressed a USC class in 1981 and spoke about a dominant characteristic of Ellingtonia: "As a kid he played a bit of piano but not too much. His chief interests were sports but his real talent seemed to be as a painter. I've seen one or two paintings from his earlier days and he had a very good sense of color-bold color-rather like Gauguin but it was harmonious. When he eventually gets into music, I think that sense of color, and color contrasts, is really one of the things that distinguishes his music. Most of the other arrangers in jazz never had this great variety of color. That's why he always maintained those plunger mutes when everybody else said they were old fashioned. He never obeyed fashion." Morgenroth's color is evident in his rich chords and voicings throughout but, again, it's the ballads that show his range of expression and depth of vocabulary. His sublime rubato treatment of "In a Sentimental Mood" let's those chords gently roll while the tone moves from solitary gloom to a sunny resolution. Those kind of subtle yet profound variations and calibrations abound on this collection by an emerging master. Kirk Silsbee October 2009.