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Back in the late ‘60s, it wasn’t unusual for jazz fans to own an album by hypnotic minimalist composer Terry Riley, but, overall, there has not been a lot of crossover between jazz and minimalism. That’s why it’s especially noteworthy that pianist Aaron Diehl has chosen to include a jazz trio version of minimalist Philip Glass’ “Piano Etude No. 16” on his deliciously eclectic new album, The Vagabond, his third for Mack Avenue.
Exposed to a wide public as the impeccable musical director for Grammy-winning vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, Diehl, 34, came to know Glass’ music when he was invited to be part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “The Etudes Project,” in 2014, which presented all 20 of the composer’s piano etudes.
“Philip was looking for a jazz pianist,” explained Diehl in a phone interview last December while visiting family in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “He wanted to have different kinds of pianists interpret them, not just classical. I was a bit familiar with Glass’ music, but it was never something I imagined I would delve into.”
Delve, he did. At first, the music did not come easily.
“It took me a while to be able to focus and not get lost,” he admits. “You can go into a trance!”
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In the beginning, Diehl played the music as written, asking his trio – Paul Sikivie, bass, and Gregory Hutchinson, drums – to devise accompanying parts.
“Then we started to interact more with the structure of the etude,” says Diehl, “and eventually it got to a point where I wanted to improvise on the harmonic structure. It morphed over a three-year period.” The trio puts a jazz stamp on “Etude No. 16,” to be sure, but it nevertheless proceeds with the repeated, murmuring pulse, off-kilter time (the meter is 7/8) and gradually shifting patterns that are the signatures of minimalism. The piece begins with an urgent, excruciatingly beautiful melody, enhanced about halfway through its eight-minute-plus duration with an “answer line” that re-joins the first melody in a climactic and clanging finish. Throughout, Sikivie and Hutchinson reinforce the momentum and mood with nuanced colors.
Glass has enthusiastically embraced Diehl’s approach and has continued to invite him to play his music all over the world. Diehl says there’s something about “Etude No. 16” that seems to grab audiences: “It doesn’t matter where we go, the piece is the hit of the night – Croatia, Detroit, London – there’s something about the melodies and repetition, it’s very haunting, meditative, but also calming. I am never bored with it.” The trio was on the road for two weeks straight before going into the studio, so they were ready to roll. The “Etude No. 16” you hear on the album is the first and only take. It’s a moody piece that could easily be the soundtrack for a character remembering something from the past, slowly rolling thoughts over in his mind. As such, it fits nicely with the crystal clarity of the whole album, which in addition to the Glass work features seven originals, plus tunes by Roland Hanna and one of Diehl’s major influences, John Lewis, plus a riff on Sergei Prokofiev.
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The opener, “Polaris,” has a droll, atmospheric quality reminiscent of the late Esbjörn Svensson. “Lamia,” “Park Slope” and “Kaleidoscope” proceed deliberately, with plush lines, classic elegance and intricately woven bass and drum parts. Sikivie’s walking bass buoys the jaunty swing of “Magnanimous Disguise,” which includes a playful quote from “Minority.”
If the title track reminds you of Bach, that’s no accident. Diehl grew up studying classical piano and Bach is one of his main men. Lately, he’s been working up to playing the “Well Tempered Clavier” using his own pieces as entryways. “The Vagabond” is one of them. “Treasures Past,” with its hymn-like harmonies, reflects another part of Diehl’s background – playing in church. Though there’s a quote from “March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12” toward the end of the Prokofiev track, the trio gets diffuse and loose with its crazy riffs on the Russian.
Both Roland Hanna’s “A Story Often Told Seldom Heard” and John Lewis’ “Milano” reflect Diehl’s abiding interest in what once was called Third Stream – music that melds European and African-American music. Diehl has covered both sides of that spectrum, studying with Russian virtuoso Oxana Yablonskaya as well as pianists Kenny Barron and Eric Reed. Bringing the music of Philip Glass into that eclectic tent seems only natural.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to go beyond my comfort zone,” says Diehl.
For more on Aaron Diehl, visit the pianist's website.