Friday, March 16, 2012

Noah Baerman; "Turtle Steps"

Pianist Noah Baerman
Noah Baerman recently sent me his latest recording, entitled "Turtle Steps". As a pianist, I know the challenges of making a solo piano recording. I personally feel stronger with a rhythm section, and I have a tendency to overplay when I'm solo; it's a bad habit to try to fill every nook and cranny of space. I suppose that some pianists are considered stronger at solo playing than others. Art Tatum is someone I'd much rather hear solo than with a band. Obviously Keith Jarrett is great at playing alone. But when I think about the differences in how the great pianists play solo piano, I realize how many different ways there are to approach it. From Tatum to Monk, Fats Waller to Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor to Fred Hersch, the possibilities are endless.  (I'm reminded of when Herbie Hancock was in Portland to play "Rhapsody In Blue" with the Oregon Symphony. Hancock is a player not known for solo piano, but he played a few well known jazz tunes as a warm up for the Gershwin piece. Herbie's approach was so creative, it made me rethink my placement of Hancock in the pantheon of great solo pianists.)

Joanne Brackeen
Baerman's approach is a pleasure to listen to. He's got a great touch, a great sense of balance, and a great sense of rhythm and space. What else do you need? Well, possible some great compositions, which Baerman has in spades. It's a nice combination of standards and originals, and the programming is satisfying. "Gorpy's Tune", which Baerman wrote for pianist Joanne Brackeen, has a nice lilt, but has some gentle surprises. There are some interesting triads moving against bass lines, which give it almost a Wayne Shorter polychord feeling(although the triads could also lead you to think of the little triad sequence from Stevie Wonder's "Too High"....). This is a great warm up tune; Baerman takes his time, doesn't overplay, he let's his playing go where it wants to. He has a few phrases reminiscent of pianists Billy Childs mixed into some nice bebop lines. 

I like the quick change of gears with the gospel tune "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray". Gospel piano styles  use a lot of low register and usually there's a lot of rich chords and rhythm. It's short but effective. "Since The Blues Walked In" goes another way, into introspection. It reminds me a little of Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat", maybe because it's kind of an Eb minor bluesy tune with some interesting changes. Baerman jumps back to virtuosic displays with "Tiger Rag", although I find this arrangement to be clever in that Baerman avoids the all out left hand stride by using more of a Bud Powell left hand approach. It actually makes it hipper than trying to emulate James P. Johnson, which would be more expected. 

Can you believe that this bottle of vodka composed
over 200 works for piano?
"Steven's Bar" is another surprise; the piano becomes a slide guitar....well, maybe a slide santur( a Persian dulcimer which I've been fascinated with recently). I wish Baerman would have played this one a little longer. But we now jump back to Frederic Chopin, with a swing version of the "Minute Waltz. I thought that this one might annoy me, but to the contrary, it makes total sense. (One time, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, who has incredible ears, told me that he thought that Chopin's harmony was to his ears "the same as Art Tatum".) Jazzing the classics is nothing new, but the trick is how much exactly to "jazz" it? Baerman gets the combination just right. Did I mention that Baerman's "waltz" is in 5/4?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"What If You Slept" (which has been my life story for 2 years, what with my over-active toddler and all...) is actually a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge(1772-1834)

What if you slept 
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in you hand
Ah, what then? 

Baerman's approach is interesting in that he has a more lively approach than I would have expected for a poem like this. The piece has a kind of James Williams vibe to me. Next is a full on stride version of "After You've Gone", which is solid and has a few humorous moments. "The Dance" , a tune written apparently by a songwriter named Rachel Green is simply a pretty tune in 3, which shows off Baerman's beautiful touch and phrasing. "Home" continues the introspective mood. "Maqqwoe's Boogie" shows not only that Baerman knows the entire history of jazz piano, but that he's not afraid to be more creative with it than expected. The cleverly titled "Mynor Myracyl" almost alludes to pianist Chick Corea, or maybe some of the latin inspired music of Woody Shaw. Again, Baerman's time feel is solid enough to make it work.

Giant Steps, but slow.....
"This Little Light" begins with impressionistic arpeggios and some reharmonizations; it's another short interlude. The title track, "Turtle Steps" is a slow reworking of  John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"; it kind of reminds me of when I used to practice that challenging harmonic sequence VERY SLOWLY. Wow, this is pretty cool; the "Giant Steps" changes don't HAVE to be fast to sound good. This is not a cop out, it's an artistic decision. Baerman concludes his wonderful solo album with a piece called "Out Of The Sasa, Into The Zamani," which I believe is in 9/8. It's a nice relaxed way to end a nicely varied and well crafted recording. This is my third or fourth listen and I highly recommend "Turtle Steps".

Check out Noah Baerman's website here:


  1. Hi George, thanks for this post. I'm also a pianist and have been working on my own solo piano CD for a number of years now. Not surprisingly, I've been listening to a lot of solo jazz piano during that time (I particularly like Fred Hersch's "Plays Rodgers and Hammerstein" and "Plays Jobim"), and I agree with your comment about how many different ways there are to approach it. Personally, I've spent a great deal of time on my left hand, as I really wanted to use the "Left hand as rhythm section approach" on many of the pieces (did you read the Jarrett interview with Ethan Iverson where they talk about the left hand as "the last frontier"?). I love however, how you can treat the whole thing as a reduced version of a band, or go for a more specifically pianistic texture, with lots of contrapuntal stuff. Also, I think one thing that doesn't get mentioned enough in discussions about this artform is the history of keyboard music in general. Often reviewers will immediately compare a solo jazz piano performance to a jazz band, but ignore the huge history of keyboard music which predates jazz. Keep up the good work, I always look forward to reading your blog. All the best, Tim.

  2. Pat Metheny did a beautiful slow version of Giant Steps with the Larry Grenadier/Bill Stewart trio on their recording Trio 99/00. It's also on the live CD by the same trio.

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