Notes and Editorial Reviews
Lyubomir Denev (pn)
GEGA NEW 11 (50:31)
I’m as White as Snow, Lad. Grozdanka.
Pastoral and Three Times Round. Labors Lost. Rainy Day in San Francisco. Remembrance of Feelings Past. Romantic Sonnet. Biography of a Flower.
Prelude in C,
Prelude for Left Hand,
Here’s something different: a jazz piano recital by a Bulgarian musician trained in percussion, classical piano, and conducting studies. Denev (b. 1951) has, the notes tell us, worked as a conductor at the State Musical Theater, leading performances of both classical operettas and contemporary musicals, and visited the U.S. in 1983-84 as an International Culture Visitor. To judge from his style on this CD, Denev seems to have been influenced by a number of American bop and post-bop pianists, among them Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, and Cecil Taylor, yet his style is highly eclectic and very personal. Denev’s right hand flies all over the keyboard, creating chiaroscuros of sound, while the left essentially assumes the role of a percussionist. Occasionally Denev plays specific lines in the left hand which act as counterpoint, but more often than not it is his percussive qualities that come to the fore.
Like many Eastern European jazz musicians, Denev’s style does not swing as much as we Americans would like, but as has been pointed out by a number of musicians over the past century, swing really
everything, and there certainly are moments where Denev swings mightily. The first original tune one hears on this CD,
Pastoral and Three Times Round,
is a highly complex piece that doesn’t really seem to have a rhythmic nucleus—it certainly doesn’t have a harmonic one. Rather, the music is improvised into being based on a number of complex musical cells that seem at first juxtaposed but then open up into a recognizable structure.
is a more ruminative piece, although the constantly modulating harmonies resist its classification as a “ballad.” Though keeping a steady rhythm with the left hand, Denev’s right plays all manner of offbeat rhythmic and harmonic excursions. It should be mentioned that all of these performances are from live concerts during his 2010 German tour, including Munich, Augsburg, Berlin, and Bamberg, but none of the tracks are identified by date or location. As the notes indicate, every track on this disc displays Denev’s “purely orchestral mindset that informs the pianist’s work.” Tone clusters are the norm rather than the exception, particularly in such a piece as
Rainy Day in San Francisco,
although he can also begin a piece with a single line (as in
Remembrance of Feelings Past
), slowly adding to and embellishing it until, with a double-time flourish, it too becomes a complex structure.
I sometimes wonder how many listeners realize how difficult it is to create works like these spontaneously, or just how good the quality of this music is. I would hold up many of Denev’s improvisations here, as I would many of Art Tatum’s, as not only equal but also superior to the composed etudes and short works of virtually any piano composer from Haydn to the present. (I omit J. S. Bach because the thought-provoking complexity of his music still holds a special place in musical history; as the late Charles Mingus once said, “Bach must have been the baddest composer ever, because none of my pianists could ever fake one of his pieces. They always needed the music.” A composer steeped in both the classical and jazz traditions like Nikolai Kapustin can tell you just how difficult it is to compose music like this. The problem is not becoming complex, but of being coherent and consistent. As the late Pee Wee Russell once asked himself when listening to another clarinetist, “How did he know where he was going?” That, indeed, is the core essence of jazz improvisation and composition. How
you know where you’re going? Only by woodshedding, by constant practice in solitude, by beginning with a motif or a theme and then pouring a lifetime of musical experience into it, can one determine where one is “going.”
The initial minute of Schumann’s
is played relatively “straight,” but the careful listener will notice a slight change of rhythmic accent in the left hand, a displacement of the composed notes. This is quite deliberate, as Denev follows this with a gently rolling left-hand figure that then grows out of the original line while the right completely recomposes the tune. The end result is
times five, a piece that retains much of the charm of the original, yet manages to become far more complex without distorting the melodic structure so much that he cannot return to it at any given time, as he does for the closing moments. Denev gives the same treatment to Chopin’s Prelude, again altering the rhythm of the accompaniment so that he can more easily engage in changes—in this case, a really swinging jazz waltz
Lennie Tristano. The end result certainly isn’t Chopin—the Polish composer never thought in terms of tone clusters or adjoining seconds in the same way that Denev does—but in a way it’s better than Chopin because it’s more creative and less locked into a formulaic way of development. The pianist brings the same sort of treatment to Scriabin’s Left-Hand Prelude, expanding and contracting the musical material as he sees fit.
In the end I found this disc to be one of the most stimulating I’ve heard in all my years with
but I would have hesitated to name it “Piano Madness.” Denev’s playing is wonderfully creative, to be sure, and at times so complex as to bear competition with Alkan, but for the most part I found it to be music that drew me inward or at least into the Zen moment of creation and not the kind of playing that “knocks you out” with its centrifugal motion. The late jazz great Bobby Enriquez was a “piano madness” kind of player; Denev really isn’t; but it’s still a remarkable disc and well worth acquiring.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Labours Lost by Lyubomir Denev
Lyubomir Denev (Piano)
Grozdanka by Traditional
Lyubomir Denev (Piano)
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