Review: Neil Alexander – “Darn That Dream”

Maybe pianist Neil “Nail” Alexander is best known for music work in a realm that was called “jazz fusion”, before that term became a derogatory one in the 80s. Be it his project NAIL or the Mahavishnu Project, in both cases it’s about music on the border between modern jazz and more progressive rock, including the occasional super-virtuoso solo. Apart from those two projects, Alexander is also covering sideman duties in various other projects – one that especially caught my attention recently was Wentz’ Legoland Empire.

Yet besides the massive amplification, synthesizers and wicked grooves, there is a wholly different side to Alexander: last year, he had started to tour his piano solo arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre Du Printemps”, and he also released his solo album, about which Alexander says “This is who I am at the piano”, available from his bandcamp page as both a digital download and a limited edition physical CD.

A piano solo album

A (piano) solo album, for a jazz or classical musician, is something different than it is in the rock world: it means that the artists plays all alone, and most of the time (and especially in the case of a piano solo album) without multitracking trickery. It’s also a very challenging endeavour: while there’s many musicians you might enjoy listening to when they’re playing with their respective bands, few have the musical capacity to fill one whole album with their mind and their piano alone. Hence, those kinds of albums are the exception, not the rule, even for the genre’s accomplished greats such as Corea, Hancock and even Jarret. So the big question here is: is Neil Alexander, a man with a name which is not as well-known as Corea, Hancock or Jarret, a musician able to fill an album just with his mind and his piano? I decided to find out.

Typical for a jazz album, Alexander’s choice of tunes is a mix of standards and his own original compositions (with the exception of the alternate takes in a 4-to-7 split). With regard to the standards, Alexander chooses from a wide range, from “Darn That Dream” (made famous by Louis Armstrong) forward to Pat Metheny’s “Sirabhorn”, and with the exception of “My Foolish Heart”, completely avoids those tracks recorded by every jazz musician and his brother. However, different from the standards, Alexander’s tracks contained here are mainly improvisations created in one or the other of those moments you sometimes have while sitting in the studio.

So, how does it work?

So, how does it work? How does it sound? And how does he play? Let’s first start with the last one: a pianist who is able to play a piano arrangement of Stravinsky with ease is not someone to worry about chops, and that also becomes clear from the performances here. Be it the more virtuoso tracks (such as “A Question of Energy”) or in contrast the slow and gentle ballads such as the opening title track, you’ll find a very effortless command of the piano. Virtuosity is not contained for its own sake (simply because Alexander doesn’t need to do that), but because it serves the music. And while it serves the music, it is served flawlessly.

As a listener of this kind of material, I’m not so much interested in the cover tracks, but rather in the original compositions and how the artist manages to make them sit together. And this may be the biggest accomplishment on this album: going from “Darn that Dream”, a (also tonally/harmonically) gentle ballad to the aforementioned fast-paced “A Question of Energy”, with only one track in between: Alexander makes it work, first by adding more complex chord voicings at the end of the first track, then in the following “Stop for a Moment” combining a deceptively simple theme with harmonisation reminding neither of the Great American Songbook nor of fusion jazz, but rather of classical works by e.g. Saint-Saens and Debussy, and then jumping away on the almost open end of that track into the energy of “A Question of…” with its Bartokesque tonal language. Also, Alexanders includes not one, but two versions of the title track (and in fact alternate takes of various other tracks as bonus tracks), which is not only different from, but also equally valid as the first take – how often do you get that?

A brain surgeon’s view on the artist

Especially with an album of that nature – offering you essentially a brain surgeon’s view on the inner depths of the artists – you can always argue about some points. Is the “Epilogue” really such a good track, especially to close and album? Maybe the change from “Sirabhorn” to “The Traveler’s Tale” is too startling? These, however, are detail questions, and if I start to ask those kinds of questions, it’s always a clear indication for me that this is not only an album I already had listened to a lot of times (otherwise I wouldn’t ask those questions), but also will listen to again a lot of times.

As for the last of my questions: the album was performed on a Yamaha grand piano, which I tend to like a lot for the jazz domain (from my C7 experience). And while I find the sonic treatment (EQ or microphony?) to be a little too harsh in the upper-mids, especially during the opening bars of the album, the general sound doesn’t leave anything to be desired.

In Summary

Is this the new, innovative piece of art in solo piano jazz? The new Jarret, combined with the new Stockhausen? I don’t believe so (but then, you’ll often discover something like this later). What it is, however, is an album which carries its own message beyond the jazz mainstream, delievers this message beautifully, and at the same time remains truly accessible even to non-radical audiences. When was the last time you could say that about an album?

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