Features and Reviews
CD Review: Jazz Piano of a Celtic Soul,
by Ireland's Master of Solo Jazz & Stride Piano
Artist: Peter O'Brien
By Floyd Levin
Prelude No. 9 in E; Ain't Misbehavin'; I Found a New Baby; Davenport Blues; Bohemia Rag; Nocturne in B Flat; Alligator Crawl; Brother Can You Spare a Dime?; When Irish Eyes Are Smiling; Macushla; The Professor Stomps; Fats Waller Medley (My Fate Is in You Hands; When Someone Thinks You're Wonderful; I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and write Myself a Letter); Hymn to Freedom; After You've Gone; Rondo a la Turca; A Little Jig. Total playing time: 67:11.
STRIDE PIANO: "The left hand provides the meter on the first and third beat of a bar, then plays a supporting chord on the second and fourth beat. The 'oom' is on one and three and the 'pah' is on two and four, etc. It's better to hear than to define." –Phil Elwood, San Francisco Examiner.
To their everlasting credit, and the delight of eager fans of Classic Jazz, Arbor Records continues its steady stream of notable CDs. This latest release will impressively introduce the solo work of Irish stride pianist Professor Peter O'Brien.
The "stride" genre was introduced and popularized shortly after the ragtime era by James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Luckey Roberts, and later Fats Waller, and Art Tatum. In recent years it has been elegantly revived by Dick Hyman and Ralph Sutton. They, in turn, have inspired and influenced a bevy of European pianists, including Louis Mazetier, in France, a young Italian, Rossano Sportiello, Neville Dickie, in England, and Bernd Alhotzkly, in Germany. We can now add the name of Ireland's Peter O'Brien, who fully uses the piano's range and reveals his sophisticated harmonic vocabulary. He dedicates this material "to the memory of my good friend Ralph Sutton and his wife Sunnie." (The CD is identified as "Solo Piano"; however, an unidentified drummer and bassist are heard on a few numbers.) This interesting program salutes an eclectic group of composers – from Joseph Lamb to Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, George Gershwin, and more. They all provide fuel that propels O Brien's "Celtic Soul."
The program, bracketed by his updated interpretation of Bach and Mozart, begins with a pensive, almost meditative version of "Ain't Misbehavin'." It tenderly underscores his memorial tribute to the late Ralph Sutton, who lovingly played the Waller classic – probably during ever performance.
Moving on to "I Found a New Baby," O'Brien embarks with an articulate "conversation" between alternating hands before sailing into a bristling stride romp. His Fats Waller medley curiously includes Harry Woods' lovely "When Someone Thinks You're Wonderful," a little known tune that Waller recorded in 1935 – and it fits beautifully!
"Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" was the most perfunctory lament of the Depression years that spawned Harlem rent parties where stride pianists strutted their stuff. This deeply introspective version reflects the bittersweet ambience of the grim era. Sustaining that poignancy with a chorus of "When Irish Eyes are smiling," O'Brien smoothly converts it into a ten-finger explosive caper with dazzling ornamental runs – and follows reverently with another Irish melody, "Macushla."
As a contrast, his thoughtful exploration of "Davenport Blues," an obvious homage to composer Bix Beiderbecke, also confirms Ralph Sutton's reputation as an ardent exponent of Bix's piano compositions.
Acknowledging classical ragtime as a precursor of the stride era, we hear the pianist's authentic interpretation of Joseph Lamb's "Bohemia Rag," composed in 1919. "The Professor Stomps," an extremely accurately titled number, begins on an 18th-century drawing room theme, but soon projects another strong image of the Professor's friend, Ralph Sutton.
The package notes indicate that "Peter O'Brien is recognized as one of Europe's finest exponents of Harlem Stride style of piano playing." This is not hyperbole. He is a technically accomplished pianist who knows how to handle a variety of material, uses his astonishing technique for expressive purposes, and radiates a joy in performing that is all too rare.
I am sure we will hear more "Solo Jazz and Stride Piano" from this Celtic Soul.
(This CD can be ordered from Arbors records, 2189 Cleveland Street, Suite 225, Clearwater FL 33765. $17.00 postpaid.)