Brick's Picks: F***ing Pianos, How Do They Work? 

Thursday, Mar 17 2011

We still haven’t the vaguest idea how a piano works. Well, we know how it works, literally. You press a key and a little hammer plunks down on a wire and the wire resonates and you got a note. Do a couple at once, you got a chord. Pump the pedals for effects. We know that. But how it goes from that chord to, say, Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson is a complete mystery. We see Monk do a fist clomp on the keys and he makes jazz. We get real drunk and we sound like Cecil Taylor, but Cecil Taylor makes jazz and all we get is someone yelling to get Brick away from the piano.

So how jazz pianists do what they do completely mystifies us: 88 keys, 10 fingers, feet at the pedals and even an elbow or two when they get carried away, and out of those ingredients they make the most amazing music. We sit and watch their hands dart across the keys, listen to the panoply of sounds, freak as the improv turns unbelievable.

But how to explain that in words?

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When the best gig of the week is a piano player, we feel pretty helpless telling you exactly what it is he does and why. We can say Theo Saunders plays beautiful piano. That he picked it up in the days when Trane’s quartet was really happening, changing everything, and McCoy Tyner was doing all those grand, long sweeps and gorgeous clusters of chords dropped just right. And Monk was still happening, too, his playing spare, punctuated, dramatic. Saunders soaked all that in. So we’ll say that, and hope you get the idea. It’s a sextet gig, and man, does he have the killer sextet, with Chuck Manning on tenor and Zane Musa on alto, trombonist David Dahlsten, bassist Jeff Littleton and drummer Tony Austin. They jam hard, no matter how obtuse the composition (Saunders can get pretty eclectic), and the up-tempo pieces can get crazy hot. Best of all, it’s a release bash for his too-long-awaited Intergeneration. At Charlie O’s on Thursday, and no cover.

Then there’s pianist Alfredo Rodriguez. He’s one helluva player with a very intense technique, a lotta notes. You’ll think Art Tatum in places, almost. Quincy Jones caught him at Montreaux, dug it a lot, and got him on the bill at the Playboy Jazz Festival, where Rodriguez was impressive indeed. We’d been wondering where he’d gone (these virtuoso types have a thing about woodshedding) but he’s back, courtesy of Jones again, at Vibrato on Tuesday. It’s a trio gig, and should be pretty thrilling. $20. And the Foundry on Melrose is also always good for energetic piano trios, and they have the brilliant pianist Mahesh Balasooriya on Friday and Vardan Ovsepian on Saturday. Mahesh especially is a thrill to catch live.

Some great saxophone playing this week, too. The iconic Pharoah Sanders is at Catalina’s Friday through Sunday, drawing out the faithful. The man played with Trane at his most intense and had a great string of releases on Impulse!, and that alone keeps the fan base steady. Still wails, too. And NYC alto Jim Snidero is back (with pianist Bill Cunliffe) at Vitello’s on Saturday, an excellent player. Bob Sheppard is across town at Vibrato the same night. We’re always raving about him. At Charlie O’s on Wednesday the under-recognized alto saxophonist Gary Foster joins bass great Chuck Berghofer. You have to experience Foster’s perfect tone. Mighty bassist Christian McBride begins a Catalina’s stand on Thursday with his five-piece Inside Straight!, with its sax-vibes-piano combination.

And the Blue Whale pushes things outside and electro this week, beginning with pianist Richard Sears switching to Rhodes for his band Rick, whose self-titled debut we dig a lot. Sears is quite a pianist, you can see him at the Foundry often enough. But this project is as rock and groove and trance as it is jazzy, and that can be a real good thing. Then drummer Jason Harnell’s Sigmund Fudge (with Joe Bagg on keys, guitarist Jamie Rosenn and bassist Ryan McGillicuddy) stretch in odd, angular ways we really like on Saturday, and bassist Daren BurnsOnibaba (a sextet featuring Vinny Golia playing sax and everything with a reed plus some) go some weird and ethnic places on Wednesday.

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