One major facet of modern composition has its locus in the merger of composer and performance, and the increasing presence of the interpreter’s hand as intrinsically tied to what’s on (and sometimes off) the page. Far from the detachment of David Tudor or the brothers Kontarsky, the player’s nuances are in many cases the flesh and blood of contemporary acoustic composition. This isn’t anything particularly “new” — Terry Riley’s jazz-schooled electric organ sonatas have a syrupy groove to them, and picturing the bearded one at the helm isn’t too difficult; Philip Glass’ early work and its electronic overdrive (plus the Cajun improvising ensemble that he used) exceed any fixation on similar and contrary phase relationships. In this context of instrumentalist-as-composer, pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny has worked extensively with Robert Ashley and David Behrman, recording their pieces as well as his own on the Lovely Music label. He has also performed the works of John Cage, Laurie Anderson, and improvising composers Leroy Jenkins (violin/viola), Carla Bley (piano), and Thomas Buckner (voice).
Born in Texas in 1945, Tyranny’s first LP of his own compositions was released in 1978 as Out of the Blue (Lovely, reissued by Unseen Worlds), and he’s waxed another dozen albums of works for piano, electronics, and voice since then. Detours is the latest, presenting four compositions performed by Tyranny in 2005 and 2010 and dedicated to important figures in his biography. Importantly, it’s also the first recording of new music — that is to say, not reissued — that Unseen Worlds has released. At its heart, Detours is an album of solo piano meditations, rhapsodic, elegant, and deeply tied to the performer’s inventive hands and mind. Tyranny draws the influences of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and Ran Blake into a palette that’s deeply connected to both romanticism and the blues. While not a jazz pianist per se, the connection between Tyranny’s music and the jazz tradition isn’t too oblique.
The opener, “13 Detours,” is a set of 13 brief, improvised variations on short harmonic nodes dedicated to Phil Perkins. Tyranny’s touch is light and delicate and the recording is absolutely superb, allowing notes and their gauzy inflections to hang in the air with pregnant physicality. The first detour, in fact, has a phrasal similarity to Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” though it evaporates and quickly segues into a balletic glint. Dusky, noirish harmonics appear as an undercurrent, visible even as playful pomp or minor-key folksiness emerge. “She Wore Red Shoes” is, like a number of Tyranny’s pieces, the musical component of a dance/multimedia work — in this case Deal, created by Stefa Zawerucha and David Fritz. With an architecture of chanting percussion and spectral synthesizer chords, Tyranny splays out in flatted, circular motifs and reflective eddies, all with an underlying swing and lilt. Passages of concentrated block chords are brief but add to the orchestral weight of the piece, which is sweeping and hooky. Tyranny’s jaunty, slightly broken progressions and turnarounds in the final few minutes peek out from terse metronomes and an electronic scrim, and ultimately “She Wore Red Shoes” elicits an art-pop sensibility that is quite captivating.
The lengthy “George Fox Searches” is dedicated to Jeffrey Guyton and takes its title from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox (1624-1691), invoking the subject’s spirit with quaint majesty. Essentially an improvisation on a delicate and full romantic fragment, Tyranny moves first into a lush arpeggiated dance with muscular, ringing fluidity, while the second thematic variation finds him building a network of pointillist jabs, disjointed like firecrackers against a keening base. Snatches of strident folksiness soon emerge, only to be offset by sparse upper-register curls and shadowy, nearly diffuse filigree. Stretched out over 20 minutes, “George Fox Searches” retains a striking thematic core even as Tyranny works coiled jabs, knuckled statements, and brief passages of floating repetition into his palette, an array of colors that, were they not harmonically related to the short “theme,” might seem far afield. The closing minutes are restive and bluesy, effortlessly shifting between stoicism and knowing nudges. Written for a 2009 performance at the Friends Meeting House in New York (its initial version runs for about 50 minutes), “George Fox Searches” is a particularly fine window into Tyranny’s improvisational acumen.
“Intuition” closes the LP, a meditation for piano and tape (the latter put together in 1987) that shores gentle, quavering harmonies alongside glassy vibraphone-like sounds, horns, explosions, garbled noise, and birdsong, but sculpted in a way that this accompaniment skitters and weaves its way into the pianist’s framework. Not entirely a dialogue and more akin to the vestiges of an installation, this short piece is a fitting comedown from the quizzical glory of Tyranny’s searching soli. Furthermore, the CD version of Detours is programmed a bit differently, swapping “George Fox Searches” and “She Wore Red Shoes,” so there is an electronic continuity not present on the vinyl edition (reviewed here). Unseen Worlds could not have chosen a better point from which to continue their relationship with “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s work, and Detours is a gorgeous offering of contemporary piano music.