Friday, July 17, 2009

Personal Manipulations: Ellen Lease

© Andrea Canter

When it comes to avant garde and experimental music, pianists have a more challenging task than most musicians. Unless you grab the inside strings or treat the piano as a percussion object, there is no way to alter the sound. A horn can slide and squeal or have mutes (or more!) stuffed into the bell; a bass or guitar can use pedals and loops or just sliding and slapping fingers to create different tones and overtones; a drum kit has infinite possibilities in terms of both objects and how they are used to strike something; even the human voice can be varied to change tones and tone quality. With a piano, you hit the key, the key hits the string, an A is an A....the quality of the sound totally depends on volume and that invisible thing called “touch,” leaving the pianist to create solely by varying the music itself. Of course some pianists do reach into the innards to dampen or pluck the strings—Craig Taborn (when rarely on acoustic piano), Ethan Iverson, Bill Carrothers and more are adept at adding this technique to their music, while Taborn, Uri Caine, Hiromi and others meld acoustic and electronic elements.

Ellen Lease plays acoustic piano, and so far I have never seen her go inside to hit a string or turn to an electric keyboard or laptop. She composes interesting compositions for herself and four other instruments that do lend themselves to nontraditional manipulation—saxophone (Pat Moriarty), trumpet (Kelly Rossum), bass (Chris Bates) and drums (Dave Stanoch). With husband Moriarty, she coleads the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, a long-standing avant ensemble that plays on only a few occasions each year, usually in a small obscure space at Studio Z in St. Paul’s Lowertown. Each of these musicians is well suited artistically and technically for the compositions of Lease and Moriarty, journeys that provide a perfect introduction to the modern edge of jazz without submerging the listener in an endless sea of anarchistic cacophony. Rather, their compositions alternate between beautifully dissonant lyricism and joyous firestorms of chafing harmonies, freewheeling with purpose and often with subtle rather than overt rebellion.

Pat blows his alto through squiggly upheavals and layers of ascents and descents; Kelly, surrounding himself with a collection of mutes, takes his trumpet (or smaller piccolo trumpet) on sometimes sweet, sometimes acerbic expeditions to the heights and depths of the brass tubing, evoking grins if not downright guffaws. Chris strikes multiple strings with the back of his hand or slides fingers up and down the neck til the bass tones growl or skid or burp. And Dave confirms that anything, any body part, can become an agent of percussion, from bells to shells to elbows.

But Ellen Lease has no such devices beyond her command of ten fingers. Yet she evokes the sensation of tinkling bells, ominous thunder, oncoming traffic, crackling fires, tumultuous waves, showers of falling stars; her writing seems to fall between unlikely yet compatible pairings of Debussy and Iverson, Bartok and Taborn, Chopin and Moran. And on her closing composition last night (“Peril”), she managed with mere acoustic and manual weaponry to match the fluttering bird calls of trumpet and sax.

Each of these musicians deserves his or her own blog entry. But I’ll start here with Ellen Lease, whose instrument may have the least flash and be the least amenable to physical modification, making hers the most personal manipulation of all.
Photos (top - bottom): Ellen Lease (at last year's Artists Quarter gig); Pat Moriarty, Kelly Rossum, Chris Bates with Dave Stanoch, at Studio Z on July 14, 2009 (Photos by Andrea Canter)