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Monday, August 11, 2014

Richie Beirach - The Snow Leopard (Evidence)

The Snow Leopard is a 1997 trio record with George Mraz, bass; Billy Hart, drums; plus Gregor Huebner, violin, on a few tracks. This is one of my favorite notes. I always find it more interesting to talk with the artist about the album, and Mr. Beirach was very friendly and open during an afternoon in his apartment. In particular, his earlier Blue Note recording of the first piece in Musica Callada by Federico Mompou had been my introduction to Mompou's music, and talking about Mompou with him strengthened my desire to track down all of Mompou's recordings of his own piano music.

Thanks also to Jerry Gordon of Evidence Records for the assignment. It was the first liner note job I got from a label other than Black Saint/Soul Note, where I had worked for several years.

Over the course of Brooklyn-born pianist Richie Beirach’s long and respected career, he has never made an album as full of variety as The Snow Leopard. “I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before,” he explains, “and that had always previously been a problem and dangerous, [which] is to bring together very disparate, seemingly stylistic possible clashes. It’s one of the things that I’m always very aware of making a record, that you don’t just put a bunch of tunes on it--you don’t have to have a big concept either--but the way music dovetails into each other is very important, and it’s ultimately more important than the actual content. Some of the music on The Snow Leopard is straightahead in a sense, like that tune "Citizen Code," that’s swinging, and it’s tonal. And then to do something like the Bartok duo, which is completely different language, different instrumentation, and contemporary music. It just happens that I really enjoy doing all those different things. I usually do them on separate albums. Putting these things together, I just wanted to give myself a challenge, surprise the guys I’ve been playing with for 20 years, and hopefully come out with some fresh things as a result of different combinations.”

Though Beirach didn’t think it all out beforehand, he does have strong feelings about how the different items balance each other, and how the sequence flows. “In terms of chromatic or tonal or simple harmonic [language], the intensity of the Bartok piece is very similar to "Redemption," except that the instrumentation is different. We also do "Peace Piece," and that is very stark because it’s pure C major. "The Wee Small Hours," you know, a standard, Frank Sinatra, is very dark. I mean, the tune is in major, I put it in A minor instead of C major. I saw that as a balancing act to "Naima" and "Peace Piece." For me what is the difficult thing to integrate is not the playing, it’s the harmonic language, and then the rhythmic phrasing. See, the rhythmic phrasing in "Naima" [is] very, very, not conservative, but accessible. We’re not slipping around over bars disguising it very abstractly. You can count it. I wanted that. Whereas "Redemption" is like a volcano.”

One of the reasons "Redemption" stands out is because it comes right after "Expression." “Now the reason I put them together, "Expression" was Coltrane’s last tune. If you listen to Coltrane’s recording of it, they play the head with Alice and Rashied, and then they go off and scream. They don’t ever use the chord progression, even rubato. I realized when I saw the tune, that the tune is so important, because it combines a lot of Coltrane’s tunes from the past. It has like "Giant Steps" kind of movement in a ballad, like major third root movements. Melodically, the way the notes fall on the chords are very, very tonal, they’re right in the 1-3-5-7 of the chord. The harmony moves, it’s very thick, it’s almost like an old-fashioned ballad the way the harmonic movement is so rapid. Because [later] Coltrane had basically simplified his chord progressions down to one or two chords. He eliminated all the rapid chord rhythm. So I played the tune and it was such a strong piece of music, it was almost operatic, it was like Tosca, an aria. And then I got into the chord progression, I learned to play it through the changes, which nobody has ever done. First I was going to play it solo piano. No. It was too like Rachmaninoff. Then I realized, I’ll play the head, play through the changes like Trane does, but I’ll play on the changes after. In other words, I’ll go back and play from chord to chord. It worked because of George, harmonically, because I’m so linked with him; [and] that’s Billy’s favorite stuff, the free rubato stuff. And if you listen to the way Billy plays on that, there are very few drummers alive that have that kind of imagination. At the end melody, we’re sweeping along and it’s really rubato. He starts playing very soft but very consistent double-time. It had nothing to do with what I’m doing, but when you listen to the whole thing together, it creates a whole other dimension, because he’s doing like a texture superimposition thing. He’s doing what’s not being done. The reason I put "Redemption" after that is because Coltrane was Billy’s thing--he played with him once or twice, I think--and that tune, that’s like a Trane tune, isn’t it? Maybe [from] Transition, harmonically.” The interviewer suggests Blue Train. “You’re right,” Beirach responds, “because what I do in it, I don’t play on one chord, I move it to an eight-bar blues thing. But that was more consistent with "The Snow Leopard," and the Bartok, the language of it.”

This is the second time Beirach recorded Federico Mompou’s "Música Callada No. 1" (he did a solo version on Sunday Songs). “I discovered Mompou through a student,” he recalls. “A student went into the Tower Records discount bin, like a big barrel for a dollar, and she just saw this nice old man’s face on a CD from Spain. The guy lived to be 97, he just died 10 years ago. Alicia de Larrocha was the original tape that I heard. The music was so deep and simple and reminded me so much of the best of Bill Evans, or the way Keith [Jarrett] would play early on, no excess. It had that sense of concentration, those pieces. ["Música Callada No. 1" is] perfect for improvisational format, because it’s so simple. It looks like a lead sheet! It’s some of the deepest music, and a challenge to play. There’s no place to hide. You can tell he spent his life on one note here, one note there. So that appealed to me, because of simplicity and transparency, to use it as a format for improvisation. It kinda felt like it was one of my tunes, or something from Sketches of Spain.”

Beirach also returns to some of his own tunes on this album. “I recorded "Elm" a lot. Elm was originally a record on ECM which was never distributed here, with George Mraz and Jack DeJohnette. [Elm also includes "The Snow Leopard."] I recorded "Elm" also with Quest. I wrote "Elm" as a dedication to a wonderful Polish violinist named Zbigniew Seifert who I was friends with and who I recorded some stuff with. Very unknown, very tragic. He died of cancer [at 33]. That tune, I didn’t write, it just, there it was. It came as a gift, intact. People seem to be drawn to it because there’s something very basic about it, it sounds like it’s always been there.”

The melody of "Citizen Code" is also an interesting story. The chords are based on the standard "The Lamp Is Low," and Beirach changes the original melody by playing it quite abstractly. He points out, “The guy that wrote it stole it from Ravel. It’s Ravel, 'Pavane for a Dead Infant.'” It’s no surprise given the song’s Impressionist roots that Beirach was attracted to it. By the way, he explains the title thusly: “[Producer] Todd [Barkan] thinks I look like a young Orson Welles, like Citizen Kane. And Code is my nickname for years, people call me The Code.”

Fortunately, Beirach’s musical code is so emotionally communicative that no matter how complex its harmonies and rhythms, it’s easily understood. With so many facets of his style in one place on The Snow Leopard, it’s practically his Rosetta Stone, simultaneously a summary of his musical growth and the perfect introduction for new listeners. Like the title animal, Beirach’s music is rare and beautiful and worth preserving.

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