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David Gordon Trio

Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band


by Ian Mann

December 21, 2015


Gordon takes an unlikely concept and makes it work superbly. The broad mix of musical styles keeps both band and audience on their toes and the playing is infused with wit and wisdom throughout.

David Gordon Trio

“Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band”

(Mr Sam Records SAMCD004)

I’ve always admired the playing of David Gordon, mainly because he’s an extremely accomplished and highly versatile pianist (and sometime accordionist), but also because he’s one of the few nationally known jazz musicians to have performed in my home town of Leominster, once with his trio and once with the tango/gypsy group Zum. I’ve also seen him play elsewhere as a member of bands led by violinist Christian Garrick and saxophonist Theo Travis.

The Gordon Trio featuring drummer Paul Cavaciuti and the Danish bass player Olé Rasmussen visited Leominster in 2007, just before the advent of The Jazzmann. I remember an enjoyable evening of contemporary piano jazz with much of the material drawn from that trio’s 2005 recording “Angel Feet” (Zah Zah Records). Classically trained on both piano and harpsichord the adaptable Gordon divides his time between the worlds of classical, jazz and tango and commands considerable respect within each of his chosen fields. Frequently there’s a degree of intersection as in the group Respectable Groove, a kind of cross between an early music ensemble and a jazz group with Gordon playing harpsichord. He’s also got degrees in mathematics and logic - this is one very clever guy.

Gordon has a number of other projects on the go, including a collaboration with vocalist Jacqui Dankworth. However his most prolific outlet is his trio which has recorded five previous albums, the latest of which, 2013’s “Speaks Latin”, was a witty and intelligent look at the world of Latin music based on the folkloric traditions of South America.

This latest recording retains the same personnel with Gordon again being joined by bassist Jonty Fisher and drummer Paul Cavaciuti. Guitarist Calum Heath guests on two of the album’s sixteen tracks.

The album was recorded earlier in 2015 and marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the innovative Russian born pianist and composer. For this recording Gordon took the imaginative step of looking at musical developments that were happening contemporaneously with Scriabin such as Jelly Roll Morton’s experiments with ragtime, blues and the famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ all of which led towards the development of what we now know as jazz. Meanwhile in Paris Claude Debussy was absorbing the influences of early jazz and tango and in New York the Russian emigre Irving Berlin was perfecting his songwriting craft and churning out hits on a regular basis.

Although these musical developments occurred in relative isolation and largely independently of one another Gordon has brought them all together on this album, exploring the connections in a way that makes a project that could appear to seem contrived seem perfectly natural. In many ways it’s an extension of Gordon’s ongoing mission to bring apparently disparate musics together. As a musician he has always moved freely between the jazz and classical worlds and this album makes perfect sense in that context.

In utilising Scriabin’s music as a basis for jazz improvisation Gordon is following in a rich tradition, such jazz greats as Bill Evans and Chick Corea have each explored Scriabin’s work. Gordon’s approach is slightly different, geared more towards entertainment as he examines the structural similarities between Scriabin’s music and the the great Broadway standards and also looks for traces of ragtime, boogie woogie and samba within Scriabin’s work. 

The album commences with “Praeludium Mysterium”, an adaptation of Scriabin’s “Prelude op. 74 no. 2”.  Gordon’s arrangement gives the piece a very contemporary electro jazz feel as it emerges from an impressionistic opening to embrace almost hip hop style grooves plus Heath’s eerie and spacey guitar atmospherics.

Meanwhile the title track is a playful Gordon adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. The trio’s previous album “Speaks Latin” featured their collective vocalising on the song “Piel Canela”. They’re at it again here, albeit rather more convincingly, as Gordon adds his own witty lyrics to Berlin’s tune. His words are genuinely funny, mixing a potted biography of Scriabin,  with a series of musical in jokes that even non musicians like me can find amusing. All in all great fun.

The seed for this project was Scriabin’s “Prelude for left hand. op.9 no.2” which Gordon was obliged to dig out when one of his students broke her right hand. Gordon was struck by the tango and early jazz influences in the piece and his arrangement for the trio has morphed into “Prelude For Both Hands”, a beautiful example of Bill Evans style impressionism. This segues abruptly into the more playful “Impromptu Samba”, an adaptation of Scriabin’s “op.10 no.1”.

Almost as quickly the trio move on to “Cakewalk”, Debussy’s foray into the world of syncopation and jazz harmony. Gordon’s arrangement is very much in the style of the contemporary piano trio and the interaction between the group members is excellent on this spirited and sparkling performance.

In Gordon’s world Scriabin’s “Mazurka” is transformed into a Brazilian choro, called,naturally enough “Choro Mazurka”. It’s strangely beautiful with Gordon’s delicately melodic playing complemented by Cavaciuti’s exquisite cymbal work and a brief, but eloquent bass solo from Fisher.

W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues” was first published in 1914, ideal for the time-scale of this project. Gordon’s arrangement begins in reflective fashion before locking into an insistent groove   which provides the springboard for Gordon to have some pianistic fun as he throws a little wilful dissonance into the mix, something of which Scriabin would probably have approved.

In Gordon’s hands Scriabin’s “Famous Etude” (“op.8 no. 12”) goes through several phases building from an almost modal intro through expansive piano extemporisations, very much in the contemporary piano trio format. Elsewhere there are exaggerated classical flourishes before a lively and playful Latin style finale.

This sets the scene for “Tres Lindas Cubanas”, a danzon written in 1915 by the Cuban composer Antonio Maria Rome and played by the trio in the appropriate and authentic style.

“Improbable Hip” takes Scriabin’s “Prelude op. 67 No. 2” and turns it into a muscular piece of neo bop with Gordon taking the chance to stretch out at length in adventurous fashion as Fisher and Cavaciuti provide vigorous and highly interactive support. There’s a quieter, more freely structured episode mid tune followed by an inventive Cavaciuti drum feature underpinned by Gordon’s piano vamp.

“Nuances”, Scriabin’s “op.56 no. 3” begins in what initially seems like a suitably reflective manner but is soon transformed as Gordon gives us a brief reminder of his accordion skills and the trio scat their way through a series of playful doo-wop/barbershop style wordless choruses. Gordon then moves back to piano for a rumbustious solo as Fisher and Cavacuiti provide suitably boisterous support. The piece resolves itself in the same reflective mood that it began. All great fun with the trio squeezing an incredible amount of variation into just three minutes, forty seconds.

The music segues almost seamlessly into “Scriabin’s depressed” (Prelude op. 51 no. 2”) which begins introspectively with Gordon’s melodic piano motifs well complemented by the nuanced filigree of Cavaciuti’s exquisite cymbal work. However the music gathers momentum as the piece develops and the trio stretch out in typically adventurous and imaginative fashion.

“El Pollito” was written by the Uruguayan tango master Francesco Canaro, no doubt circa 1915, and acts as a reminder of Gordon’s skills as a player of that music. Gordon delivers a delightful performance and he is brilliantly supported by Fisher’s bowed bass.

“Rootless Sonata” (“Sonata 4, op. 30”) is reminiscent of the opening track with Heath’s guitar atmospherics adding to the already fragile and gauzy aesthetic of the arrangement.

The choro “Passinha”, written by the Brazilian composer Pixinguinha (1897-1973) is played as a beautiful solo piano performance. The composer was something of a child prodigy who began writing music aged 14 and made his first recording just a couple of years later. This piece doubtless dates from that period.

The album concludes with its longest piece, the near eight minute “River”, an adaptation of Scriabin’s “Mazurka op.25 no. 4” which begins as an extension of the solo piano performance on the previous track. Fisher and Cavaciuti eventually enter the picture but their tasteful, low key support ensures that the music retains the mood of introspective lyricism and fragility with which it began. The collective performance is a master-class in sensitivity and restraint and it’s a delightful way to end an excellent album.

“Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band” takes an unlikely concept and makes it work superbly. The broad mix of musical styles keeps both band and audience on their toes and the playing is infused with wit and wisdom throughout. Gordon’s knowledge and command of the various idioms that he explores is highly impressive as is the level of technical skill exhibited by the pianist and his colleagues. Fisher and Cavaciuti get relatively little solo opportunities but their intelligent, always tasteful support is a key factor in the album’s success, this really is an excellent all round trio performance.   

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