Featured Tracks

Sure, I get it: you don’t necessarily want to cull through days, months, years of solo piano improvisations just to find the real nuggets. So I’m conveniently using this page to highlight what I think are the best. Of course, this is just my opinion, and my opinion changes over time, so this will be a dynamic page: I’ll change it up every month or two as I cull through 4+ years of improvisations.

1/21/14 Possible Questions

Posted by on Jan 21, 2014 in Featured | 0 comments

1/21/14 Possible Questions

Soon, very soon (maybe mid-February) I’ll begin making posts of tracks that are directly from the live show Piano Diaries (runs May 21-June 29 at the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago. Read more about the show here.) In the mean time, I figured it’s about time I start making contributions to the improvised Piano Diaries blog, again. After all this is the original format…been busy getting the show together, so I kind of let it slide.

7/11/13: New Blues #1 in C

Posted by on Jul 11, 2013 in Blues, Featured, Semi-improvised, Written Music | 0 comments

7/11/13: New Blues #1 in C

As with the track below, I just recorded this today at Tone Zone in Chicago. There are mistakes, folks, but I thought you should check this track out. It’s one of the few here (so far) that is based on a written composition. That is the first part is written, the middle part is an improvisation over the left hand part, and the third part combines the first and second parts. Does that make sense? No? Well then listen and figure it out for Pete’s sake! And I am Pete. (Does everything in this godforsaken nation need to be obvious?)

7/11/13: At the End of the Day

Posted by on Jul 11, 2013 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

7/11/13: At the End of the Day

Today I recorded some solo piano tracks at Tone Zone in Chicago. All I can say about that place is—very nice Yamaha piano.  (And that’s really all I’ll say.) This was the last thing I recorded, when I was pretty much good and done; when I was toast, when  I had nothing left to say. But sometimes that’s the right moment to put down something different. Like this…

1/29/13: Sports Authority

Posted by on Jan 29, 2013 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

Most people, when they listen to this, will think “jazz” or “classical” or some combination of those two. But that is entirely missing point. Clearly I’ve been influenced by those, and many other, traditions. But the end result is neither. The American novelist Richard Ford  said this about comparisons with his work and that of Faulkner, Updike, and Hemingway: “You can’t write … on the strength of influence. You can only write a good story or a good novel by yourself.” That is the point. This is not jazz as seen through the prism of a born classicist, or impressionistic harmony as played by a jazzer: this is a simple 5 note theme, as interpreted by me at that moment on January 29, 2013. It is me by myself, expressing a part of what I think, feel, and know in purely musical terms at that moment. This has nothing to do with jazz or classical or anything but me and that five note theme.

1/24/13: Ode to Cecil Taylor

Posted by on Jan 24, 2013 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

1/24/13: Ode to Cecil Taylor

When I was a teenager I was sufficiently smitten with the jazz tradition that I wanted to experience and know the whole thing. That’s one of the reasons I listened to the great avant garde pianist, Cecil Taylor. I also loved his playing—up to a point. He did (and does) tend to go on…and on. But I was, at least for a time, influenced by his very personal style, he opened up many new sonic vistas for me.

I hadn’t listened to him in years, maybe decades, when I decided for some reason to give him a listen again on Spotify. And he had the same effect some 30-odd years later—he reminded me that I didn’t have to get stuck in one particular way of approaching the piano. This improvisation is a result of that very important reminder.

Thank you, Mr. Tayor.

11-06-09: If Schubert Was Alive Today and He Was Me

Posted by on Nov 6, 2009 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

11-06-09: If Schubert Was Alive Today and He Was Me

What Franz Schubert Has to Do with It? The only reason I associate this with Franz Schubert is that the chord progression at about 1:10 mark is something I ripped off from one of his string quartets. I do love Schubert, but otherwise this has nothing to do with him at all—a fact that you glean from the title if you deconstruct it. What it’s really saying is that if Schubert was alive now, and he was me, this is how he would play. But that’s just an absurd and verbose way of saying that this is how I  do play. Schubert has nothing to do with it…except that chord progression, which, by the way, he didn’t exactly invent.

7-29-09: Russian Tea Time

Posted by on Jul 29, 2009 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

7-29-09: Russian Tea Time

My 3rd or 4th composition teacher (depending how you define the words “composition” and “teacher”) was the late Ralph Shapey at University of Chicago. No, I didn’t attend U of C, but my 2nd (or 3rd) composition teacher, one John Austin, a wonderful man and composer whom I studied with privately, was kind of enough to use his influence with Mr. Shapey to arrange for me to take a composition class with the cranky old U of C neo-serialist. This was in the immediate year or two after I left Indiana U (1982-84) where I suffered from a kind of environmental exposure to too many bombastic opera singers belting out mindless, earsplitting, vibrato-laden arias,  and too many pseudo-virtuoso pianists hacking their way through Chopin’s Etude Révolutionnaire. It was before I matriculated as a legitimate composition major at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where I studied with my 4th or 5th composition teacher, Warren Benson,who was friends with Alec Wilder, a songwriter, and curmudgeon who wrote a book about American song that I generally liked, but found absurd in the end because he pretty much dismissed anything after 1956 or so (e.g. Beatles, Simon, Dylan, Wonder) as amateur hour.

There were three of us in Shapey’s composition class, all boys. I don’t remember anything about the other two. I do remember three things about studying with the crabby old man. One, he was genuinely cranky, as only a Philadelphia-born disciple of the twelve-tone way could be. But it was almost a Hollywood-character-actor level of crankiness that was truly a joy to behold in person—and in truth, there was a playful wit behind it. With Shapey, of course, you needed to be very careful about completing your assignments correctly and on time. He had no problem with saying, “What is this fucking shit?”, if you didn’t. (One time I failed to show up for class because I hadn’t completed a one page analysis of something or the other, and he actually calls me up and says, “Where the hell were you today, and where’s your paper?” I, of course, said that I was sick. He said, “Well you should have called.” He was right, and I wasn’t sick: just afraid of his wrath.)

The second thing I remember was purely musical. He had taken Schoenberg’s basic serial technique and developed it into a freer, perhaps more musical, more American compositional system. I absorbed quite a bit of this technique and used it in several compositions. I still use it when I need it (not often), both in my improvisations and extended compositions. Though, in the end, I still didn’t like much of his music, it did sound better than Schoenberg—not so deterministic, not so old, not so tired. More improvisational, actually.

The third thing I remember was Tchaikovsky. No, unfortunately, he wasn’t one of my classmates, but Shapey was a huge admirer of the great Russian. He put him right up there with Beethoven himself, and by the time I was studying with him, I was on my way to feeling the same. Shapey, in affect, pushed me over the edge and allowed me to embrace my inner Tchaikovsky. To this day, I think his Pathetique Symphony is one of the greatest things every written. So did Shapey.

What I particularly admire about Tchaikovsky was his enormous skill at composing musical autobiographies sans words. It’s not that composers didn’t do this before him, just that Tchaikovsky, in a very Russian way, put a degree of emotional intensity into his work that is astonishing. It could have easily devolved into the kind maudlin sentimentality that characterizes so much movie music if it weren’t for his microscopic attention to the details, necessary to the making of great composition. Some critics still find Tchaikovsky’s music to be excessive, over the top. They are entirely missing the point: Tchaikovsky did wear his heart on his sleeve, but he did it with such consummate artistry that it is a truly beautiful thing to behold.

The autobiographical character of this piece reminds me of Tchaikovsky in so many ways, particularly the dramatic ending. It reminds me again how once a great artist perfects way of communicating ideas and emotion, as Tchaikovsky did, we are all given the freedom to partake in that technique. When great artists open up new vistas, they are exposing a corner of universe we’ve never seen before. We, the progeny of that great artist, are all free to go exploring in these regions.

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

Posted by on Jan 2, 2009 in Featured, Free improvisation | 0 comments

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

This is such a sweet little theme that I’m inclined to clean it up, develop it—you know, make it into a real composition.  But that would be a mistake: the essence of it’s sweetness and sadness is that it was thrown off like a tattered old shirt you love. It’s full of holes, but it’s also bursting at the seams with history. Mending it would only conceal the history. So you hang it up in the closet and let it be.

Yeah, only this is not your damn shirt, it’s a piece of music, and the shirt was almost certainly not improvised into creation. As such, this number, perhaps more than any other piece on the album, illustrates both the power and peril of improvisation vs. prepared composition.

The power of the medium always reveals itself in the form of the unexpected. In this case, it’s a beautiful melody, full of regret and hope. Now I instinctively know how to write beautiful, searing melodies, but I’ve never written, to my knowledge, anything quite like this one. Part of what makes it different, I’ve discovered after a somewhat casual analysis, is it’s expansiveness: it takes almost a full 40 seconds for the first complete melodic sentence to unfold before the second, responding phrase begins. I’ve written hundreds of songs, with many fine melodies, but most (again, based on very casual analysis) are built on short declarative phrases.

What happened here? As far as I can surmise, this just happened on it’s own accord, unwilled by any conscious choice on my part. And therein lies the true power of free improvisation. If I tried, at least at that point in my life, to write such a melody I may not have been able to do it. But when I wasn’t trying, it just happened. More likely than not, I was thinking about something mundane or even technical—I may have been thinking: “I need to play something in a romantic Bill Evans style to balance out all of the dissonant stuff I’ve been playing lately”. I actually do remember thinking something along those lines as I played this, even though this doesn’t really sound like Bill Evans at all. The more I try to sound like other people, the more I end up sounding like myself.

So where’s the peril? Well, it’s almost as if, because it was kind of new to me, I wasn’t prepared to develop this type of melody.  I don’t want to ruin your experience of the  piece, but for my ears, I start to get lost around 1:35 or so. There are still some wonderful little moments, but it’s otherwise rather rough going until the abrupt end.

So what does all of this tell me? In retrospect, it now seems like “Sad and Sweet” was a message from the future—as in, “as you grow older, you’ll be using more melodies like this, so start preparing for God’s sake.” And that may be the most powerful thing we gain from improvising freely—a glimpse of future possibilities. My subconscious is apparently telling me that I’m going to have to develop new techniques as a pianist and composer. I’m going to have to learn to weave together more complex strands of melody.

I’ll keep this old shirt hanging in the closet as a reminder of the work that lies ahead.