Jenny Lin, piano
Le Poisson Rouge, NYC
Tuesday, November 27th, 2012
Written by Jeremy Shatan
In the Western Classical tradition, virtuosity is a given, at least if you want to have a hope of revealing the music behind all those little black dots. The is mainly due to the specific techniques used to play the instruments employed, and to the tendency of many composers to seek the limits of those techniques.
That said, virtuosity for its own sake is not something that interests me. I prefer to listen to what should be a communication from another soul than to think about technique when at a performance or listening to a recording. I recognize that I may be in a minority as the popularity of virtuoso musicians playing show-stopping music seems to be holding steady.
Jenny Lin proved herself to be a virtuoso beyond a doubt when she performed arrangements of show tunes at Le Poisson Rouge last Tuesday night. Her technique was flawless, making use of every aspect of the piano’s dynamic and tonal range. At times my mind wandered into thinking about the neuro-muscular system, and the phenomenal control she had over her fingers and forearms. It was truly dazzling playing and it seemed to engage the audience completely.
While Lin’s technique was straight out of the European tradition, her repertoire for the concert, drawn from her new album Get Happy, was strictly American. To put the audience in a lighthearted mood, a video (created by her husband–well done, sir) was played before she came on stage. It was a visual compendium of interpretations of many of the songs in her set, featuring Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, and, more often than you might expect, The Muppets. It was sort of a miniature That’s Entertainment, with snippets of several performances for each song included. The point of the video, as I saw it, was not only to help us “get happy,” but also to make it clear that Lin was taking her place in the long line of artists who had performed these songs, with no one approach being precisely definitive.
Besides the charm, beauty and humanity of the Great American Songbook, one of its wonders is the seemingly endless fount of material it has provided for jazz musicians. There is a melodic, rhythmic and harmonic inevitability to the best of these songs that makes them very sturdy and highly adaptable. The number of compositions and improvisations based on “I Got Rhythm” alone may be literally countless. Chances are, if there is a jazz club in your town, someone is blowing those changes tonight.
Lin’s project is quite different than that, however. Get Happy assembles a variety of virtuoso arrangements of popular tunes, with the distinguishing factor being that all the arrangements are by fellow pianists, some commissioned especially by Lin for the record. There is a good bit of variety in their approaches, from the near-Liberace stylings of Earl Wild to the more cerebral takes by Stephen Hough.
Enough preamble–what did we actually hear at LPR from Lin’s flying fingers? Quick impressions:
“Blue Moon” (Andre Previn): Natural sounding, an auspicious start. Concise – perhaps too concise. Yearning takes time.
“Hello, Young Lovers” and “My Favorite Things” (Stephen Hough): Hough has definitely absorbed John Coltrane’s mammoth exploration of the latter, finding unlikely internal dissonances. Slightly unhinged, but stays on track.
“Eliza in Ascot” (Stefan Malzew): Square, like a player piano. But then, Lerner & Loewe were not the loosest guys.
“Meditation on Laura” (Marc-André Hamelin): Makes the most of the unresolved melodic mysteries in
“Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” (Earl Wild): The first breathes nicely while the second encrusts one of our most iconic melodies in 1,000 notes of…what?
“Honeysuckle Rose” (Uri Caine): Hard to outplay Fats Waller–Caine takes him on from a somewhat steely, robotic angle.
“Begin The Beguine” (Cy Walter): Distinctly old-fashioned–Liberace all the way – but goes out swinging.
“Johanna” (Christopher O’Riley): In a way Sondheim is tailor-made for this project, as he is the furthest from the jazz and blues influences that Gershwin, et al, drew on. O’Riley’s expert take did nothing to change my mind about Sondheim (I don’t like his music).
“Get Happy” (Stephen Prutsman): Starts off perfectly, with that touch of melancholy that underscores the song, but then goes into top speed mayhem, trampling the melody and everything in it’s path.
At the end of nearly every piece, I noticed many in the audience would let out a breath before applauding, almost as if to say, “Whew, she made it!” To me, this is more the reaction one has at an athletic event than a musical one. However, the applause was long and generous and the crowd had obviously gotten what they came for. It is very likely that I was the only there who was left mostly cold. Lin is certainly capable of soulful, communicative playing – one need look no further than her masterful recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues for proof–but the Get Happy project is mostly about display.
Walking to the subway, I turned to Spotify for a corrective experience and found a 20 minute jam on “I Got Rhythm” featuring Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. It was a joyful romp that was just the thing to warm me back up.
Jeremy Shatan is the writer and editor of the blog an earful (anearful.blogspot.com).