Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bill Anschell: figments

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: figments

Although I’ve reviewed numerous albums by — or featuring — pianist Bill Anschell, each always involves a bit of fear. Aside from being an outstanding musician, Anschell is an excellent writer and humorist; I know that whatever I say, he would have said better (and funnier). That said, here goes...

Anschell is a Seattle, Washington, native who left after high school. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio for two years, and earned his music degree from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. Jazz was his love; after touring with various groups for several years, he settled in Atlanta, where he served as jazz coordinator for the Southern Arts Federation. Nights were spent with his own trio, as a sideman with groups that were part of that city’s jazz population.

During the next 10 years, Anschell also became Nnenna Freelon’s pianist, arranger and musical director; her album Shaking Free was nominated for a Grammy Award, as the year’s best jazz vocal, during that period. Anschell returned to Seattle in 2002, where he then made his home and became a key member of the Northwest jazz fraternity.

His discography is extensive: He has been a sideman on almost three dozen albums, a collaborator on five others and a leader on four more. figments is his fifth in the latter category, and his first as a solo pianist; it’s also his most inventive release.

To quote Anschell directly (because he says it more succinctly than I ever could):

In the world of jazz piano, going solo can be daunting; it means having to single-handedly (okay, double-handedly, but still—) assume roles more typically covered by at least three players. But, given an open mind and a deviant disposition, playing alone has its benefits. Harmonic progressions and steady time, which keep a band playing in tandem, suddenly become negotiable. Detours from a song’s form or tempo — tangents that might cause a band to implode — can lead to unexpected and inviting places: destinations where imagined figments find a welcoming home.

The album consists of 12 standards and show tunes (some of his favorites), all recorded in his own studio, after other jobs he had played. Even with his innovative reworking, you’ll recognize and thoroughly enjoy them. The varied roster of composers includes Cole Porter, David Clayton Thomas, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, and Rogers and Hart.

Anschell used two pianos: a standard, and a “programmed.” The latter was a standard that he stuffed with items from his studio — mouse pads, beads, books, towels, packaging, etc. — to achieve different sounds and create various effects. (Don’t laugh; it worked!)

I haven’t enjoyed anything this much in years.

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