Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Making a Statement

Artist: Ray Bryant
Album: Somewhere in France
Source: Promo

Thirteen tracks. A mix of original compositions and classic tunes. A little over an hour long. Recorded live on a particularly good night.

Viewed through those broad descriptors, Ray Bryant's Somewhere in France has an excellent chance of being nothing all that special, just another live disc in the jazz idiom. But this solo piano date winds up being something special indeed, and in fact quite rare: a single piece of work that ends up as a complete statement by the artist.

This idea of a "statement" can be a slippery one, and I'm not sure I'd be much help creating a workable definition. But you could do worse explaining the concept to someone by playing this record (which was part of an earlier group entry, but I want to talk about in more depth here). Wordlessly and sans accompaniment, Bryant opens with a rollicking rip through "Take the A Train" that instantly sets aside any memory of Ellington's big-band orchestration and instead makes the tune sound like its pouring out of Bryant and into the world for the very first time. Bryant has something to say here, and he manages to say it loud and clear, in such a way that leaves no corner unswept, no T uncrosssed.

The ineffability of this kind of full statement is sort of wondrous. The program itself is nothing particularly special, running from the familiar ("Django," Willow Weep for Me") to the much less so ("Slow Freight," Jungletown Jubilee"), and Bryant does little to illuminate them in his between-song patter. (In contrast with a solo-piano excursion from Keith Jarrett, there isn't that sense of instantaneous creation and discovery.) But when the applause dies down and Bryant's hands hit the keys, the logic is as hard to miss as it is difficult to wrap your arms around.

In a way, I suppose I'm jealous of Bryant. Who wouldn't want to have the chops to so deftly say one's piece like this? I write and write, nearly every day, for both money and fun, and I think I frequently hit the nail pretty squarely. But I'd hesitate to claim that anything I've written over the years has ever said it all on the topic at hand, left no questions lagging. I say what I can, turn it in on time (and/or hit Reply and Send in short-enough order) and tend to get the job done in a way that makes the right people happy. That's no small thing, to be sure (I can easily recall a time when I couldn't quite nail all that down), but it's also not quite anything too much larger. To put it another way, I feel like I am able to hit Rumsfeld's fabled "Known Knowns" and "Known Unknowns," but do not yet have the Bryant-like control of my craft and voice to discover the "Unknown Unknowns."

I could go on and on as Somewhere in France plays in the background, but as per the above paragraphs, you really just need to hear it, start to finish, "Take the A Train" to "Until It's Time for You to Go," to hear what the man has to say.

SISOSIG? For sheer pleasure alone, this is a keeper. The inherent totality of this piece places Bryant squarely in the camp of artists from whom I have no burning need to pick up more recordings, but I also would be sad to part with the one I have.

Speaking of "sad to part with," looking at this disc makes me want to make quick mention of the recent passing of Joel Dorn. I received this disc as a promo from his Label M, and its one of many from him that make The Beast a little bit fiercer. Dorn ended each of his liner notes with the sign-off, "Keep a light in the window," and it's impossible to argue that he failed in that very mission over the course of his lifetime.

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