Pianist Marilyn Crispell has garnered a well-deserved reputation as one of the most virtuosic players of both improvised and contemporary classical music. Her work with Anthony Braxton’s 1978-1993 quartet demonstrates her extraordinary technique, as do her solo performance recordings. As with much of her recent work, however, this newest solo disc exhibits an extraordinary attention to space and an increase in lyricism that take her playing to a level beyond that of her admirable back catalog.
The opening track, the first of the Vignette series, encapsulates the transformation. More akin to the finely chiseled proportionality of Messiaen’s bird music for solo piano than to any improvisational trope, her playing is replete with rapid-fire detail. Yet, pauses and anticipations abound, surrounding the irregularly placed chords and imbuing each phrase with additional layers of meaning. Each gesture exists in a closely related galaxy, the whole connected by silence. At one pivotal moment, Crispell builds a rising edifice from a single, repeated note, abandoning it suddenly at the loudest point and letting the decay complete the arch. Similar structural liberation and innovation abound throughout the series, as Crispell explores the piano’s innards or as she evokes the distant rumbling of a waking volcano in the fourth vignette.
Her intimidating musical rhetoric is not without emotion – far from it. There is the achingly tender “Walse Triste,” with its thorough probing of the minor second. Even when the most superficially simplistic material is used, as with the sustained low-register tones in “Gathering Light,” her right hand playing is so varied and complex that rhythmic and melodic interest is maintained; the three repeated bass notes become more of a point of reference than a simple pedal, as chords and tones dart in and out of quick-shod focus in the upper register.
Crispell juxtaposes such tonally inflected pieces with the more stereotypically abstract moments, creating a nicely balanced program. She showcases her compositions in a way that demonstrates their diversity while highlighting the absolute command with which she approaches her instrument. As would be expected, the recorded sound is full, rich and resonant in typical ECM fashion.