My new favorite solo piano album
There a lot of first-rate players in gospel music, many of whom make fine soloists and performers in their own right (Anthony Burger, of course, is Exhibit A here). And/but it’s a curious fact of southern gospel especially that its pianists (solo or otherwise) produce, on the whole, solo recordings that range from the serviceably generic and unremarkable to the miserable and schlocky. These projects tend to be formulaic in their song selection and arrangements and include distracting band tracks with often cheesy BGVs (alas, Anthony Burger is also Exhibit A here too). This, combined with the slavishly conventional quality to the rhythm and melody, tends to depersonalize the music. (For instance, as delighted as I am to see Gordon Mote take the main bench on the Gaither tour, his latest project - for all its technical flawlessness - falls pretty flat [the dueling pianos track is a notable and welcome exception.])Solo pianists have long complained about their tracks being relegated to the dead space between commercials or songs or segments on the radio (this was about the only way Floyd Cramer got airplay back in the day), or used as the pre-prelude at churches and concerts before the live music strikes up. This is a fair complaint to some extent - at least to the degree that characterlessness in solo pianio is the nature of the beast: solo pianists in mainstream genres like Christian or gospel or pop music don’t make careers out of performing and recording original music; they give fans the warm-and-fuzzies or the feel-goods by (re)playing recognizable numbers on the keyboard (this is why solo pianists often end up with outlandish personas and preposterously staged performances because the piano playing alone can’t bear as much of the weight of a solo career as, say, a voice like Joyce Martin’s or Michael Buble’s or Nora Jones’s: think Liberace’s rhinestones and candelabra, or Dino’s bling bling, or even Anthony Burger’s smoke and lights). But at least part of the reason for pianists playing second fiddle to singers must surely be that there’s an unnecessary amount of sameness to so many mainstream solo piano projects, an absence of identifiable style. It’s difficult to justify treating the umpteenth barely rearranged rendition of “Church in the Wildwood” or “Blessed Assurance” the same as, say, Gerald Wolfe’s masterful performance of “The Longer I Serve Him.” Indeed, Cramer’s famous slip-note playing style made him one of the few Christian, pop or country pianists to sustain a solo career based primarily on a recognizable sound rather than a personality.
All of which should make it no surprise that my new favorite solo piano project comes not from southern gospel, country, Christian, or pop but from jazz: Eric Reed’s’ Mercy and Grace. It’s actually a jazz/black gospel hybrid, and if you like your solo piano down the center line this probably ain’t for you. But it does a lot of things right: includes old standards but genuinely reimagines and reinterprets them - rhythmically, melodically, generically; studiously refuses to schlock things up with band tracks or BGVs (this is jazz after all, where performers would be laughed off the stage for using tracks of any kind); and it manages to define a recognizable style of playing. That is, after listening to this a few times, you’ll immediately be able to tell Reed’s version of, say, “Just as I Am” apart from all others - without the help of rhinestones or candelabras or even slip notes.Email this Post