As a followup to 2010's acclaimed Jerusalem Trilogy on Justin Times Records, pianist-composer Matt Herskowitz showcases the art of solo piano on Upstairs, recorded before a live audience in the intimate setting of Montreal's Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. Drawing on his classical training and his deep love of jazz, Herskowitz presents an artful blend of musical styles with direct nods to Michel Petrucciani, Dave Brubeck, George Gershwin, J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann along the way. "I wanted the choice of pieces to reflect a broad range of what I do, including my own compositions, arrangements of classical pieces, and my favourite jazz covers," writes Herskowitz in the liner notes to Upstairs.
Performing on a Yamaha C-6 piano in the quiet ambiance of the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, Montreal's answer to Manhattan's Village Vanguard, Herskowitz delighted the Tuesday night audience with his eclectic program, which opens with Brubeck's rhapsodic homage to Chopin, "Dzienkuye (Thank You)," a piece he wrote in 1958 while on tour with his quartet in Poland and which first appeared later that year on Brubeck's Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. "I've known him for a long time because I wrote a piece back in 1998 called 'Chorale and Variations on a Theme of Dave Brubeck,' which is based on one of his tunes, 'In Your Own Sweet Way,'" recalls Herskowitz. "The Canadian premier performance in Montreal was recorded by Radio-Canada, and it sounded great. So I gave it to a mutual friend of mine and Dave's son, Chris, and Chris ultimately gave it to Dave, who called me six months later to tell me that he was blown away by it! We kept in touch until his passing earlier this month. It's difficult to express the profound influence and effect that his music, his generosity, support and encouragement have provided me over the years I've had the privilege of knowing him. I feel truly blessed for that."
"In addition to being a supportive and influential voice in my own music, as well as in music in general, he was absolutely the most generous, selfless and encouraging person I've ever known, and I'm very glad to feature one of my favourite tunes of his on my album, now as a tribute to Dave. I sent a copy of my performance of 'Dziekuye' to Dave back in August, and he loved it, which was very heartening to know." Of Herskowitz' last album Jerusalem Trilogy, Dave wrote the following in a personal letter: "I listened to Jerusalem Trilogy carefully. Congratulations! You have transformed the concept of 'world' music as I conceived of it half a century ago. You have carried it further than I could imagine back then. The playing is wonderful throughout."
The brooding "Waltz in Moscow" was written by Herskowitz in 1994 when he participated in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. "I was inspired by being in a place from my own roots and by the warm, open, talented and creative people I met there, particularly the students from the Gnessin Conservatory, who took it upon themselves to drag me out of my hotel room and show me around the town, as I could not have seen it on my own," he writes in the liner notes.
Petrucciani's uplifting "Cantabile" is a gospel-tinged number that traverses a wide dynamic range. "It has a thoroughly infectious groove, simple and beautiful chord changes, and permeates a feeling of cool optimism. You can take it anywhere you feel like going, from a big, crazy jam to a lonely, reflective inner moment, and it always shines through," says Herskowitz. On his interpretation of Schumann's "Traumerei," Herskowitz imbues a few passages with real-deal blues statements.
Herskowitz's melancholy "Bella's Lament" is a song he wrote with singer Theresa Tova for the original musical theatre production "Bella, The Colour of Love," which tells the story of the great Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and his beloved wife and muse Bella, as told through Bella's voice. "I wanted to specifically include 'Bella's Lament' on the album because I thought it would fit well. Even without the lyrics,the music is still conveying the emotion of their story. And I liked the effect that it has just playing it as a solo instrumental in a bar."
The jaunty waltz-time "Bach à la Jazz" is a jazz arrangement of Bach's "Prelude in C Minor" from the WTC book 1, which Herskowitz previously recorded for part of a film soundtrack. "An old friend of mine, Ben Charet, asked me to play the 'C minor Prelude' in the style of Glenn Gould for a film he was scoring called The Triplets of Belleville. After I'd recorded it, I started playing around with it as a jazz waltz, just killin' time and having some fun. He ended up using that in the film, calling it 'Bach à la Jazz.' That original performance I did in the film has been released on EMI's soundtrack of The Triplets of Belleville, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. I've since made a concert version of it which I play with my trio. I adapted the solo arrangement from more or less what I did with the trio and included it here. It's kind of well known at this point, especially among fans of the movie."
Herskowitz closes his live outing with two popular Gershwin numbers - a spacious extrapolation on the ballad "But Not for Me" and a rousing, reharmonized take on the age-old jamming vehicle "I've Got Rhythm," the latter serving as a dazzling chops showcase for the accomplished pianist. "You have to do something a little bit original with that tune at this point," he says of "Rhythm," which has him running surging bass lines with the left hand while comping and soloing furiously with the right. "Everybody knows it so everybody's going to recognize it even if you do something extreme to it. If you put it in 9/4 and add an unrecognizable intro, everyone's still going to know what that is. So you've got a lot of room to run with on that one."
Regarding the intimate ambiance of the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, where you can literally hear the clinking of glasses in the room by the patrons, Herskowitz says he appreciated the pin-drop silence during his solo performances. "I didn't even tell people that we were recording that night. Maybe I should've, but it turns out I didn't have to because they were just so respectful of the performance. They were there to chill and listen to the music."
A graduate of the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Albany native has made Montreal his adopted home since 1999. He distinguished himself as a talent deserving of wider recognition with his 2007 solo piano release, Matt Herskowitz Plays Gershwin (Disques Tout Crin), which featured solo arrangements of "Rhapsody in Blue," "Concerto in F" and "Cuban Overture." In 2008, he premiered his piano concerto "Undertow" with New York-based multi-genre chamber orchestra Absolute Ensemble at the Bremen International Musikfest in Bremen, Germany, and in 2010 recorded the ambitious Jerusalem Trilogy, which seamlessly fused contemporary jazz and classical styles with a unique blend of Arab and Jewish styles and grooves. Now with the release of Upstairs, the outstanding pianist-composer stands ready to make the next incremental leap in his burgeoning career.
Upstairs - Track Listing/Personnel
1. Dziekuye (Brubeck)- 13:36
2. Waltz in Moscow - 7:05
3. Cantabile (Petrucciani)- 9:03
4. Träumerei (Schumann)- 5:27
5. Bella's Lament - 12:22
6. Bach à la Jazz (Bach, Arrangement by Herskowitz)- 3:25
7. But Not For Me (Gershwin/Gershwin)- 10:55
8. I've Got Rhythm (Gershwin/Gershwin)- 8:16
All tracks composed by Matt Herskowitz (unless otherwise noted)
Matt Herskowitz / piano
For more information on Matt Herskowitz, please visit: mattherskowitz.com
For more information on Justin Time Records please visit: justin-time.com