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Naked and Not

Photo by Michael SlobodianYOU KNOW HOW YOU CAN REALLY TELL if a music-maker's got the magic stuff? Close your eyes.

The other day, I was plugging through a stack of review CDs when piano jazz popped through the speakers. It sounded like some wild sculptor throwing mountains of clay onto a table and rabbit-punching them into new shapes. I looked at the jewel box -- no sticker, no picture, no paper. I ejected the CD.

D.D. Jackson, it said. Oh -- no hype needed; I'd been watching this guy. Born in Canada in 1967, he'd moved in 1989 to New York, where a couple of Charles Mingus' great (and now late) pianists, Jaki Byard and Don Pullen, taught him to trust his natural nonconformity. Rowing against the then-prevailing neotraditional current, he'd hooked up with the ever-searching saxophonist David Murray. He'd formed a rollicking trio with World Saxophone Quartet baritonist Hamiet Bluiett and Senegalese percussionist Mor Thiam. He'd made four CDs as a leader for the Canadian Justin Time label, including two challenging volumes of duets with avant rulers such as Billy Bang, Don Byron and Ray Anderson.

Listen to D.D. Jackson: Real Audio Format Camiliano Sweet Beginnings

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And Jackson had just blindsided me with his new . . . So Far, where he brazens out his major-label debut with a naked collection of solo pieces. No problem; the man requires neither costume nor athletic support. Though he has dedicated most of these 12 original compositions to music notables, he says he didn't so much style them after the expressions of others as recognize influences on â playback. As detectives, most of us will find ourselves less astute.

Jackson works the ivories with titanic power. For this recording he requisitioned a 96-key Bösendorfer piano, from whose bonus bottom he manhandles tidal waves of thick pudding that could knock Grandma's china right out of the hutch. On "Camiliano," Jackson's nod to machine-gun Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, he positively bashes the leftward extremities, his right hand meanwhile dancing in treble territory with a half-Latin, half-classical passion.

That classical ghost always hangs close. When Jackson channels Debussy, he marshals an orchestra of effects, his stratified atmospheric shifts offset by whimsical descending patterns that change almost unnoticeably into foreboding asides. Throughout the set, I kept thinking of L.A.'s recently departed Horace Tapscott, and after experiencing the dark-browed vigor of "Round and Round," I discovered why: It's subtitled "for Vladimir Horowitz" -- whose stirring emotionalism Tapscott acknowledged as an early model.

There's plenty more in Jackson's bag, and thanks to a surprisingly undissonant (for a modernist) harmonic approach, he extends a broad welcome. His "Maybe Not" squirts the sheer joy of the best Ornette Coleman. And for a nuptial processional, you couldn't improve on the gospel soul and lovely melody of "Sweet Beginnings," which Jackson wrote for his brother's wedding.

Listen to Kip Hanrahan: Real Audio Format Ishaak of Mosul The Tale of the Youth...

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NO MUSICIAN IS AN ISLAND, SO IT'S enlightening to watch D.D. Jackson sublimate his art to the vision of an idiosyncratic pain in the ass such as New York mastermind-percussionist Kip Hanrahan, whose catalog of American Clavé recordings has recently scored broader distribution through Justin Time. Again, no sweat: Jackson's collaboration on A Thousand Nights and a Night -- Shadow Nights 2 lends continuity and range to Hanrahan's oblique concept. This takeoff on the story of Shahrazade (Hanrahan's preferred spelling) wears layers of veils, from Erica Larsen's discursive narration ("the lie of the possibility of symmetry in contracts"), to the illegible accompanying text, to the cut-up audio assemblage. But such beatnik methodology, properly executed, can work a spell -- Hanrahan's attractive web of disorientation might draw you in.

The core of Nights is the percussion, with a couple of taut extended jams echoing hypnotic story cycles; on one cut Hanrahan offers four separate mixes, so you can hear the ensemble from each drummer's viewpoint. Against this prescribed background, Jackson tells his own tale. He's paired with his old mentor Pullen (who died not long after the recording) on five tracks, most of which are presented as teasing fragments, like scraps of an ancient manuscript from which you must deduce a context.

The two have a lot to say, whether splashing inspirations at each other or settling down for a lyrical conversation. The whole project comes together in, uh, "The Tale of the Youth Behind Whom Indian and Chinese Music Was Played, and the Tale of the Jaundiced Youth," a 9:34 epic wherein Pullen, over a building percussion groove, holds to a polished-marble pattern of organ chords, atop which Jackson ascends, first cautiously, then with a growing bluesy urgency made nearly frantic by a gathering hail of beats.

Nice scene: Jackson in a kind of delicate fury on his teacher's shoulders, rising to meet . . . whatever's next. And that's where he remains. So far.

D.D. JACKSON | . . . So Far (RCA Victor)

KIP HANRAHAN | A Thousand Nights and a Night -- Shadow Nights 2 (Justin Time/American Clavé)


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