Sunday, 9 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #55: The Ill-Tempered Klavier (2007)

At number 55 is classically-trained jazz pianist Chris Lyons, with his first solo offering, The Ill-Tempered Klavier. The title is a reference to J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (1722), reflecting his classical influences. Chris Lyons was born in Dalkeith, Scotland in 1987. A child progidy, he began winning national composition competitions at the age of 7, and by age 10 he was performing his work for the Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust. Outside of music, he won the acclaimed Pushkin Prize for Poetry. After he graduated from the City of Edinburgh Music School - the youngest person ever to do so - he began working on a novel. His fascinations with jazz and the state of modern music in general has made him a bright young hopeful in the jazz scene, as proved by the performance of his Trio at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival in July 2007.

The Ill-Tempered Klavier, therefore, has a potential genius at its helm, a man whose training and expertise is otuflanked only by his dedication to music. We begin, appropriately, with '(Intro) Der Klavierspieler'. Beginning with some scintillating cascades down the keys, it's pretty harmless stuff, and at 1:22 it's the shortest track on the album. But what you do get from this is the sense of poise and the elegance which Lyons brings to the instrument.

Before you allowed to muse and mull over this any further, though, you are through up-tempo and head-first into 'Pterodactylic Hexameters' (answers on a postcard how to pronounce this). Here the vibrant dynamic drums come into play, rocking the whole thing up and about. Having demonstrated his classical prestige on the opener, Lyons uses this track to blow away all notions that he has just another stuffy chold prodigy. True, it's not the catchiest piece you'll ever hear, but it's unpredictable and doesn't get boring - just as jazz should be. And, there's some very graceful guitar at the end.

Having set the bar notoriously high, Lyons comes just a little unstuck with 'Molly's Blooming'. This does not invoke the same dignified, sophisticated rush that the previous two pieces. This has a flavour of self-indulgence to it - had this been played on something like a Minimoog, it would not have felt out of place in the ELP-end of prog rock (an area we shall we return to in due course.). It's less dynamic, it's slower and it's generally a lot less compelling. What is more, the drum part is littered with annoying bell rolls (repeatedly hitting the bell of the ride cymbal) in that stereotypical jazz fashion.

Thank goodness then that the trend is discontinued. 'Free Market Orgonomics' is an incredibly pleasant tune - you feel like you're walking in Central Park with the sun out and the flowers in bloom. But then the mood grows more cagey, just enough to quicken your step and prick up your ears so that you don't doze off, like you were listening to Eddi Reader. Here the drums and piano combine beautifully, taking what The Bad Plus pioneered and twisting around to give a refreshing, relaxing tune.

'Autotheism (Etude For Piano And Pianist)' begins like a concerto by Sergei Prokofiev, before transmuting into an uptight but balmy piano workout. Again, Lyons has chsen a cumbersome title which may serve to dissade many the casual listener. But pray, continue listening, and once you get past 1:37 the whole piece moves up the registers and becomes a great deal more playful. The 6/8 time signature is a refreshing break, if nothing else, from the 4/4 tedium of much modern music, especially from the pages of MySpace.

'Offa's Dyke' begins like the best kind of dinner party music - the kind which conjures to mind champagne and Ferrero Rocher, and finds your guests constantly inquiring as to the origins of what is playing behind them. This is a very graceful number; from the moment you hit the play button your head is soothed and your ears massaged by the sweet tones of Lyons' piano. Having said that, he doesn't let you get bored, he lulls you into a false sense of security, before the crash cymbals and off-set tom-toms let rip and make you listen all the more inquisitively.

The only other time that Lyons fall short on this album is on the next track. 'Thus Swung Zarathustra (Execution Soundtrack For A Bad Artist)' has one of the most pretentious titles since the songs of Ron Geesin's The Body (1970). Not only that, it's pretty formulaic, sounding like a relic of the Ray Ellington quartet with a Fender Stratocaster's effects overdubbed by a very clumsy editor. The piano work is not so much sloppy as indifferent, and the vibe of the piece is not one that makes you cry for more; it's one that makes you want to shout "Get on with it!".

No matter, though, because the remaining three tracks are all a delight. 'Never Crushing The Yellow Flower' has a summery romantic feel to it, the kind of music you'd listen to in a field of dandelions. Or the kind of stuff you'll see on mobile phone adverts by the middle of next year. It's a great deal punchier that a lot of its counterparts, and it rolls along like its title in the wind. Part of its appeal, without beign too derogatory, is the total absence of drums. That might make it plain, but no - instead it creates a sound that just smacks of honesty and devotion. It's a bit like the Red House Painters, but without the dreary vocals.

If you're left pining for the drums however, don't despair. 'Everything You Know (I Taught You)' is a great chance for the drum section to show off, which it does in spades - there are some beautiful rock triplets near the start. The rhythm is often displaced but in a very good way - rather than startle you like it might in rock, because this is jazz you are more relaxed by it. The feeling that no-one is in control lifts you to a different state, and you go from strolling around Paris to reclining in the clouds. (True, there are no accords to make it completely Parissian, but then Lyons is no Yann Tiersen).

To close this remarkable album, we have 'The Advent Of The Artist Tyrants'. While most of the preceding tracks have been flung right at you, this is quieter - it creeps up on slowly with its low minor chords and then rocks you gently in its arms - like you're in a hammock under the full moon. The drums are again given a back seat, reduced to cymbals and soft toms only, but this only heightens the mood - until the piece goes through another motion and it all changes. All of which serves to create something truly great.

Lyons may not have the sense of humour in his playing as his contemporaries The Bad Plus (listen to their rendition of 'Chariots Of Fire' on Suspicious Activity? (2005) if you need convincing). But that does not reduce him to a dour, troubled and mind-numbingly serious composer, doing this project to off-set the tedium of a marketing degree.² The Ill-Tempered Klavier is the perfect combination of classical finesse with the improvised nature of jazz and the groove of rock. In an interview with The Herald in July, Lyons was compared to Gentle Giant, the forgotten pioneers of prog rock. And yes, the talent and the sounds are quite similar. But the most appealing thing about this album is that it's forward thinking. This is not a record designed to buy time while its composer goes off and reinvents jazz in his head. This is him reinventing it now, on paper and on record. This combination of talent and ambition is why Chris Lyons is destined become one of the most important figures in 21st-century jazz.

3.80 out of 5

¹ Rob Adams, 'Mane man roars about his inviting vision of jazz' (July 27 2007) - Accessed on December 10 2007.
² Ibid.


James said...

Chris is a great pianist, really amazing. I played with him at jam sessions a couple of times at uni. One thing I have to point out though, the Pushikin prize is quite an accomplishment, but it is only given to high school students, so it doesn't make it any more remarkable that he was 'only' in high school when he won it!

Designed to Provoke said...

Thanks for that, have changed it accordingly.

What's he like as a person?

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