Total Time 3:22:16
Disc One 68:29
DISC TWO 66:42
DISC THREE 67:05
Can you play free; or in three;
or agree to attempt something new?
ROBERT LAMM (1971)
I have had the privilege of knowing Paul since 2002, when I first began studying privately with him through the Eastman Community Music School. Those lessons were the highlight of my weeks, as I learned more about the music that I was falling in love with. Every time I visited Paul’s studio he would have ready a whole lineup of artists I hadn’t yet “checked out” – something that even now, many years later, he still manages to do!
During our lessons, aside from listening we would spend much of our time playing duo. Often it would be a new composition of his; or his arrangement of a lesser-known jazz or rock piece for two pianos; or one of my own compositions, which often stemmed from a writing assignment he had given me (as is the case here with Helix). I found myself deeply challenged and inspired each time we sat down to play together.
Our musical relationship solidified over our many years of weekly hangs. When the time came for me to relocate to New York City, we both realized we needed to document what we had going; and so the seeds for this project were sown.
In “Who Knows?” we have tried to represent much of the breadth of jazz history by including works primarily by notable pianists who also had a sizeable oeuvre of their own compositions, spanning James P. Johnson to Eliane Elias. It was difficult to narrow this down; out of necessity we couldn’t possibly include everyone who fit this category, so we had to limit our choices.
Many of these works are not commonly performed by other jazz musicians, for example Herbie Hancock’s A Jump Ahead. Some tunes are expansive and through-composed, while others follow the more typical head-solo-head format. We also wanted to feature a sampling of our original contributions to the genre, as well as Paul’s transcription of All Is Well (by Robert Lamm from the rock band Chicago), and some free improvisation inspired by everyone’s musical father, J.S. Bach.
With everything here, we wanted to tip our hats to the original composers while being able to “do our own thing” with the material. We certainly had a huge variety of tunes to work with! It was endless fun figuring out how to orchestrate all this music for two pianos, and I can positively say I have never had as much fun in a studio as I did recording these tracks with Paul. We both sincerely hope you enjoy the results!
Chris was born in Buffalo, NY in 1987. He holds degrees from both the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School, and has been awarded several grants and fellowships. A prior winner of the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition, Chris is active as a clinician, teacher, performer, composer, recording artist and performer. For more information, please visit www.chrisziemba.com.
“Who Knows?” The reason for our title is manyfold. For starters it happens to be the name of a Duke Ellington composition we’ve included, and Duke was the very model of the creative musician who constantly asked this question: Who knows what would happen if I orchestrate this or that melody for combinations of instruments nobody else has thought of? Who knows what would happen if I write and record longer suites of music which deviate from the 3-minute 78-rpm technological barrier? Who knows how this passage might sound if I give the flatted-fifth to the lower bari sax of Harry Carney instead of to trumpeter Bubber Miley? And so on.
Additionally in our case: Who knows the result when two men sit down at two pianos and improvise? With every performance captured on tape, there is lasting documentation of the proceedings; and in the end this is a useful thing! But each time out, the music changes. As it should. The duet has always been my favorite performance vehicle. For this reason I have long been featured in duo settings, most prominently the many recordings, club dates and concerts with guitarist Bob Sneider. I’ve also been fortunate to have played decades of fun duets with a number of inspiring pianists, beginning in my teens with Shari Feder and continuing to the present with Tom Phillips. Chris was a private student of mine for many years (eight?) and is now, in his mid-20s, one of the most talented young pianists working today. Given our many years of personal and musical connection, after we had played several recitals we decided to take the plunge and record dozens of my duo piano arrangements. And it was a joy making this music with Chris. Every time I listen to our results he inspires me.
Throughout these performances I am playing a relatively brighter Yamaha (heard more prominently in the left speaker), while Chris is playing a mellower, newly-rebuilt Mason and Hamlin (heard more prominently in the right).
Much of this music combines jazz and classical sensibilities, harmonies, techniques and outlooks. Breaking down barriers between musical styles has been one of the passions of my musical life; and many of the composers represented here shared (or still share) the same vision. As such, the material on “Who Knows?” constitutes a somewhat comprehensive survey of many of the great composer-pianists in jazz history.
Not all important figures are included, especially the last generation or so of notable artists. Chris and I simply took some of the more prominent composer-pianists as our starting point, as we knew there wouldn’t be room to include everyone we so admire – even in a three-disc set. (This is why there is nothing by phenomenal jazz pianists like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, as these men were not primarily known for their original compositions.) We’ve also included a few surprises along the way – starting from the first track.
Our opening selection begins and ends with separate J.S. Bach-inspired improvisations alternating between Chris and me. (I start the performance; Chris concludes it.) These ad-libs serve as bookends to the primary material: the three minutes of music beginning at approx. 3:40, my duet transcription of a solo improvisation I once played of Bach’s celebrated first Invention, as part of an Eastman concert series.
James P. Johnson’s Modernistic is a perfect example of Jazz Age exuberance. I took Johnson’s original score (which Chris and I begin playing verbatim), added a few arranging twists along the way, left a lot of room for improvisation, and…presto! Something quite different from the original.
Clare Fischer’s beautiful tribute to groundbreaking bassist Scott LaFaro, Piece for Scotty, is a prime example of a jazz ballad which is so much more…as much Rachmaninov and Scriabin as anything else.
Who Knows? is a wonderful Ellington piece from the early 1950s, as catchy as anything Duke ever wrote but infrequently heard given his huge body of popular tunes. In our duo arrangement I wished to stick close to Ellington’s trio version, not wishing to deviate from the original – which I simply love as is.
The brilliant bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce (best known for his tenure in the rock band Cream but an equally gifted jazz and classical composer, pianist, cellist and tenor) recorded a fabulous album of Thelonious Monk-inspired music entitled “Monkjack.” Shouldn’t We? is heard on that album; and Chris and I had great fun exploring this moody piece.
One of Monk’s close friends, the incredible pianist Mary Lou Williams, composed Boogie Mysterioso. Though we keep to Mary Lou’s boogie style at both beginning and end, for contrast Chris and I decided to play our blues choruses in straight ‘4’ walking bass in the middle of the arrangement.
Talk about different! That would be Lennie Tristano, the astoundingly gifted pianist whose creative imagination brought the innovations of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to another place entirely. 317 E. 32nd, Tristano’s Manhattan address, is basically a vehicle for improvisation over the harmonies of the popular standard Out Of Nowhere. But like most Tristano compositions, what an unusual melody. At end, I thought it would be fun for us to play it as a round. Otherworldly…?
Speaking of otherworldly, Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest (and certainly one of the most unique) composer-pianists America has ever produced. Light Blue is not as well known as many other Monk tunes, and for that reason Chris and I give it a go – trading ‘2s’ throughout the middle solo section.
Chick Corea has played and written so much masterful music that it was difficult to choose which of his pieces to include. In the end we decided on Return To Forever, originally a mini-suite for quintet which I have always found a perfect synthesis of freedom and structure, writing and improvisation, while leading the listener through some intensely interesting and thoughtful moods.
Both Corea and Josef Zawinul enjoyed prominent keyboard roles in the Miles Davis small groups of the late 1960s, and during Zawinul’s stint Joe composed much of the music Miles is remembered for during that groundbreaking initial period of jazz-rock exploration. (None of us called it ‘fusion’ at the time.) In A Silent Way is perhaps Joe’s most beautiful piece, a tone poem representing pastoral life in his native Austria. On this performance Chris improvises a final run I find breathtaking.
One of the first artists who introduced my young ears to jazz was the rock band Chicago, whose jazzy horn arrangements really set my ears back (and still do). Among the greatest composers of the entire pop-rock era, pianist Robert Lamm wrote most of the songs on the incomparable fifth Chicago album. Taken from that landmark recording, Lamm’s deceptively “poppy” All Is Well here features Chris and me sticking with my transcription of Chicago’s original arrangement – complete with the brilliant horn part (played by me over Chris’s harmony comping).
January Thaw was written many years ago in the spirit of Joe Zawinul’s Mr. Gone. Here I tried to create a somewhat cinematic musical representation of a January thaw going haywire, creating havoc for the citizens…and please use your own imagination! There’s no way to really explain this piece; but it is always a blast playing this with Chris.
To contrast all my written arrangements, Shifting Sands is a pure duo improvisation. Nothing was planned beforehand. I started playing some octaves, Chris picked up what I was doing, and we then took the music to different places – our back-and-forth creative process continuing for some twenty-two minutes, and shifting between classical, jazz and blues (hence its title). Undoubtedly the many inspiring Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea piano duets are the prototype for this sort of duet playing. Thanks to Chick and Herbie for helping show the way.
Herbie Hancock’s A Jump Ahead is by design a ‘minimal’ composition, but like so much of Herbie’s music it is ingeniously constructed. Its three rotating key areas serve as a springboard for us to get into some energetic playing.
The Canadian pianist Paul Bley developed a highly unique style of playing and composing; and his Harlem evokes the other side of upper New York – not the energetic stride piano of giants like “Fats” Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith but a more bluesy, reflective side. Perhaps Bley is trying to represent Swing Era Harlem around noon, as the all-night rent parties are finally shutting down and everyone is too tired to think straight?
From the famous “Time Out” album, Dave Brubeck’s Three To Get Ready is just what the title implies – a classical waltz. Indeed, Haydn or Mozart could have written the crafty opening and closing theme. But Dave’s imaginative arrangement then shifts between 3 and 4 time; and from major to minor then back to major. I tweaked Brubeck’s ending a bit – having fun with a wacky transposition. Other than that, our basic arrangement should be familiar to many listeners.
Bud Powell is undoubtedly the most influential jazz pianist of all; and was a tremendous composer as well. Along with Ellington and Brubeck (and of course George Gershwin), Bud helped pioneer the merging of classical and jazz sensibilities. Dance Of The Infidels is one of Powell’s many takes on the blues and has long been recognized as an early classic. Bud’s great artistry inspired literally every jazz pianist who followed him, Ziemba and Hofmann included.
One of those pianists was Horace Silver, whose early recordings reveal such a strong Powell influence. Along with Herbie Hancock, Silver was a Blue Note Records fixture – both men releasing a notable series of highly influential and popular recordings. Peace is one of Horace’s prettiest ballads, and in this version Chris and I stretch out quite a bit.
Another important pianist who absorbed Bud’s approach into his own was Barry Harris. Barry has played much inspiring music over the years, and perhaps his most popular composition is the energetic Latin-jazz tune Nascimento. Always great fun to play!
Changing moods once more, Chris and I try our hand at Keith Jarrett’s evocative The Journey Home. One of the standout compositions from Jarrett’s classic “My Song” album, this is another example of a piece which combines classical, pop, jazz and blues approaches within the structure of a single extended composition.
We next get back to some boogie-woogie – in this case the jaunty style of Albert Ammons, among the finest of all the great boogie piano players. Shout For Joy is just that. Nothing more to say; the joy is in Ammons’s music.
Chris is a wonderful composer (indeed, a Ziemba piece appeared on an earlier recording of mine), and I insisted we include another of his tunes here. Chris came up with Helix – a beautiful creation which reminds me more than a little of Fred Hersch’s inquisitive style. But Chris is very much his own man; and I can’t wait to hear more Ziemba compositions in the future.
Elmo Hope, yet another Bud Powell disciple while a distinctive composer and pianist in his own right, came up with the lightning-quick Mo Is On. One of literally thousands of tunes based on the harmonies to Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, this one really moves.
McCoy Tyner is one of just a handful of pianists whose singular approach altered the vocabulary of jazz piano playing. Sunset is an early piece of Tyner’s, deceptively “cocktail piano” in its basic mood – but so sophisticated! Chris and I take our time with this one.
One of the giants of jazz piano – yet a name little known by the general public – is Jaki Byard. Jaki’s playing encompassed everything from stride piano to the most modern musical vocabulary, and his creative spirit has long been a source of great inspiration to me. Out Front is a catchy Byard blues whose infectious rhythms always make me smile.
In addition to his stint as the longtime pianist and co-composer of the Pat Metheny Group, Lyle Mays has released several wonderful recordings under his own name. On one of those albums appears Before You Go, a tune which features sophisticated harmonic and melodic structures similar to ideas Metheny and Mays have utilized on so many of Pat’s recordings. Here Chris and I play with a bit more Latin emphasis than on Lyle’s original.
From Brazil, Eliane Elias came to prominence in the early 1980s and immediately established herself as a major talent as both pianist and composer. Fantasia (written for her daughter Amanda) is one of Eliane’s most beautiful numbers and is a perfect example of the quieter side of “chamber jazz.” Not unlike a free-form rhapsody, its gorgeous harmonies lend themselves to real introspection at the keyboard.
What to say about Bill Evans? Along with Bud Powell, Evans was the indispensible jazz piano stylist in the decades following World War II (in Bill’s case, from about 1955); also like Powell he combined his love of the European classical piano tradition with jazz; and all with a shimmering poetic sensibility. In addition, Bill was one of the greatest composers in jazz; a fact which has often been overlooked due to his phenomenal reputation as a player. Orbit, also known as Unless It’s You, is one of Bill’s great gems, even if overshadowed by other Evans pieces.
Marian McPartland was best known to contemporary audiences as the long-running host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz,” on whose show Chris was privileged to appear. (Of course, Marian was also privileged to have Chris on her show!). But she was first and foremost a gifted jazz pianist and composer. Ambience is an uncommonly beautiful piece (perhaps McPartland’s best-known), moody and searching; and Chris and I take our time exploring its intricacies.
Another legendary Blue Note artist, Sonny Clark, is more widely known today than he was when writing and recording some of the most memorable jazz music of the 1950s and early 60s. Sonny’s bluesy swinger called both Royal Flush and Nica (in homage to the Baroness who was such a friend to so many jazz musicians) is a perfect illustration of his exceptional talents.
When most people think of Nat “King” Cole, they think of his rich voice which graced numerous popular songs. But Nat Cole was also one of the greatest jazz pianists; and the early King Cole Trio enjoyed both widespread popularity and profound musical influence. While Chant Of The Blues is not a traditional 12-bar blues, a strong blues feeling permeates the piece; and tunes such as this certainly influenced a young Ray Charles.
For a bonus track, I located a live recording from an Eastman concert Chris and I played a few years back. Not only is Chick Corea’s Mirror, Mirror a waltz I’ve always loved; I believe this performance includes many of the core musical values we have tried to highlight throughout these three discs – imagination, fun, and the sense of surprise.
In several important ways these duets with Chris constitute a handy summation of my recording career (officially begun with the release of my initial MHR compact disc back in 1991). Like most other baby boomers I grew up with LP records and cassettes; when the invention of the compact disc transformed the music scene in the 1980s, this changed the music industry tremendously. As such, the CD has been the principal release format of all my recordings.
We now find ourselves squarely in a new era of iTunes, the iPod, digital downloads and (for better or worse) listening to music for free (!) on YouTube. All this offers unprecedented opportunities to hear music, but it also presents great challenges to traditional commercial models. While I still have much to express musically, the changing economics and technologies have made extensive recording projects such as this seem more like relics from an earlier age...and making similar future releases less likely (or at least less frequent).
Who knows how we will receive and experience music a few decades from now? Who knows what musical styles will survive? Who knows if new jazz will still be created a hundred years hence? The business of music has always been an iffy proposition; yet significant music tends to remain. I strongly believe that as long as great musicians like Chris are there to carry the torch, creative music will continue to thrive and prosper – particularly in live performances.
Commercially? That’s another story; but after some twenty recording projects as a leader, and while I still may release further music in the future, for me this project represents a “passing of the baton.” I am heartened that many of my former students – Chris, Angelo DiLoreto, Josh Condon, Wes Powell, to name a few – are now beginning to make a name for themselves in the wider world of music; and I am inspired by them all.
However things unfold, Chris and I both sincerely hope you enjoy these duets.
©2014 MHR Records. All Rights Reserved.