a column by
Stuart Broomer

A great disorder is an order. Now, A
And B are not like statuary, posed
For a vista in the Louvre. They are things chalked
On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.
– Wallace Stevens, “Connoisseur of Chaos”

Belgian pianist Seppe Gebruers’ Playing with Standards (el NEGOCITO Records) is a singularly unusual three-CD set. Even the cover art is unusual, with a kind of wavering, echo printing of the title in black on a silvery metallic field that creates a pulsing three-dimensional effect. That sense of oscillation is central to the music as well. Gebruers has two 19th century grand pianos in his studio. One is tuned to standard A = 440cps; the other has been re-strung and tuned a semi-tone lower. Gebruers sits between the two pianos, often playing them simultaneously, one with each hand, sometimes focussing his attention on one or the other, sometimes rapidly alternating to share an absurdly dissonant phrase between both.

While such a situation suggests numerous possibilities, here Gebruers devotes himself largely to the canon of 20th century pop hits, many derived from Hollywood films and Broadway shows, staples of conventional jazz performance for much of the music’s history, 1930 to 1960.

Points of Entry:

The use of standards, even composed heads, has diminished significantly in free jazz, only to return recently as part of an exploratory practice. Early free jazz had multiple uses for “standards.” While Ornette Coleman recorded a mood-shifting “Embraceable You,” Cecil Taylor played Ellington tunes with some regularity and great respect in his early recordings, and there’s also an impassioned “Lazy Afternoon” and an exploratory take on a possibly ironically chosen “What’s New?” Eric Dolphy’s initial solo versions of standards could seem like Paganini virtuoso set pieces (e.g., “Tenderly” or “God Bless the Child”) but they would become radically expressionist, like “Love Me.” Sonny Rollins always had an ear for strange blasts from the past (e.g., “Shadow Waltz,” the title taking on fresh significance when it appeared on Freedom Suite, then again, in retrograde, when it became the title of a Jazzland reissue, cleansing Freedom Suite of a title focussed on civil rights), but during his most “free” period, Rollins indulged in radical deconstructions of material like “Dearly Beloved” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Ball.” Both John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, among many, recorded “Summertime.”

The subject of historical repertoire and composition has recently become a focus for exploration in depth for some musicians. Though the material and mode of exploration often differ from “standard” repertoire, the curiosity about form and variation is real. Pat Thomas and Seymour Wright have recently produced brilliant and expanded examinations of earlier material, reworking the themes of Ahmed Abdul-Malik with the quartet أحمد [Ahmed] (along with bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal) and as Pat Thomas and XT (Paul Abbott and Wright) invoking Cecil Taylor with their treatment of his Akasakila, Attitudes of Preparation (Mountains, Oceans, Trees). Pandelis Karayorgis has just produced a CD devoted to the conjoined music of three great pianists, The Hasaan, Hope & Monk Project (Driff), creating new bonds with the vital tradition. Similarly, Rodrigo Amado has recorded Sweet Freedom, a very free take on Rollins’ Freedom Suite. Gebruers’ work may most resemble Cory Smythe’s radical and extended deconstructions of popular song in the trilogy of Circulate Susanna, Accelerate Every Voice, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, in all of which Smythe creates eerie textures combining piano and electronic extensions with fractured tunes from the American songbook. Gebruers similarly leads us into a richly complex experience, at once measured in history, nostalgia and cycles per second.

It’s not easy to create genuinely disturbing music in 2023, at least not for those of us who might be styled “connoisseurs of chaos,” but here Seppe Gebruers does as fine a job as anyone might. It’s perhaps the most disturbing piano music I’ve ever heard (and that includes a great deal of “outside” piano music, from Ross Bolleter’s ruined pianos to Conlon Nancarrow’s piano rolls). When I first listened to the three CDs of Playing with Standards, I attributed it to his particular kind of microtonality, those 24 equal quarter tones to the octave. The equally divided 12 tone scale is largely a Western baroque invention to permit harmonic movement – “the well-tempered clavichord” – an averaging of pitch that diverges from the mathematics of earlier scales or systems like the Indian modal system in which tones may be used only in specific ragas, or a modern system like Harry Partch’s vast calculation to create wavering pitches and elisions that embrace much of the world’s music. Then I went to the source. Gebruers’ rigorously even tuning method follows the 20th century Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), who first opted for the 24 equal intervals during World War 1. I assumed that Wyschnegradsky’s music would be similarly disturbing. It wasn’t. His Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra [1929-30] for four quarter-tone pianos (readily available on Youtube) is quite wonderful, a playground of errant pitches. The significant difference is Gebruer’s decision to combine his pianos with standard pop repertoire, making every note shift from piano A to piano A flat sound like a mistake, a kind of “mistake” that recurs for three hours.

The Music: “It’s Playing Our Song”:

Gebruers goes where the fun house is painful, applying his Frankenstein scale to the still fairly common repertoire of much jazz and one that’s also subject to crooner and chanteuse revivals. Gebruers’ music may be far more disturbing to ears regularly tuned to “Just a Gigolo” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” than even the expressive, whining, drummed bends of Eddie “One String” Jones playing a length of 2x4 construction lumber with a stretched piece of wire “fretted” and struck with sticks.

Gebruers’ liner note begins with a remarkable quotation from the essayist Michel de Montaigne: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?” From there, Gebruers extrapolates: he plays not only with standards, but with two pianos and with tonality. In each case, these contribute to, participate in, what he will play.

Switch “standard” for “cat” and it appears as a point of doubt, the “standard” also an agency of control, an idea that has been shaping much of jazz for a century, right down to Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles.

There is a sense in which the “standard” will dictate not only its own special status but also a certain subservience imparted to the performer. Here the relationship is at least in part adversarial, Gebruers arming himself with two pianos, one to interrupt, to contradict the stability of the other, to pose a contradictory shadow world. The radical reimagining and combining of pitches is disrupting, undermining, even mocking the notion of a “standard” itself.

Gebruers is most immediately accessible when his invention wanders furthest from the “subject” material, especially if he focuses on one of the pianos, but the stranger adventures shared between the mixed keyboards have their own appeal. While Gebruers liberates both the pianos and pitch, the adversarial relationship here between the standards and the pianos feeds his own creativity. He doesn’t simply play “You and the Night and the Music” for 19 minutes on Disc One: he plays it three times in a row, totalling 19 minutes, each time finding another way to address it through the strange medium, utterly recasting it. Sometimes the standards are fused to interact with each other as well, with different songs moving between two pianos. On Disc Two, he plays “Never Let Me Go,” then “What Is this Thing Called Love?,” then he plays both at once, then he plays “Never Let Me Go” seven times, then “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “Never Let Me Go”? In the earlier versions it can be glacially slow, two chords struck and held to let them hang in the air, gradually disappearing to just their higher harmonics, eventually a refined upper register disappearing in its own dissonance. A later version will increase the tempo, contrasting expansive phrases, first on one piano, then the other, sometime a melody spreading between the pianos.

The constant scale changes (so near and yet so far) strip the songs of any sense of stability, may strip them, as well, of authorship, assigning them to a tone world that is at once a collective space and a no one’s land, a spot in which all sonic decays might gather. The title lists omit authorship and Gebruers suggests the pieces are becoming wholly internalized, part of a collectivized body, declaring in a note “The copyrights to the standards are superfluous, because they are collective memories and copies of copies.”

The two pianos are essentially a friction – ambiguating any kind of singular authority that might consist in any one of the tunings. The scale of the project ultimately erases the irritant of its minutiae, the frictions becoming part of a grand plan, a glitch in the world sharing its physics in the way near frequencies interact. A piece for solo pianos built on largely transient (well, slowly transient) material ultimately achieves a genuinely substantial scale, finding its own insistence on meaning. Minutiae and epic become indistinguishable in this world Gebruers’ has created, a simultaneous experience of all kinds of time.

Preface as Afterword:

An instrumental standard may also function as the echo of a lost text. I was reminded of a musician interpolating a musical phrase as the bearer of its missing lyric when I first played Playing with Standards because of a striking coincidence: the first track is “Playing with ‘When you wish upon a star’” and Gebruers had me right there.

Prior to the Covid lockdown and subsequent retirement, I taught courses in jazz history in a community college’s liberal studies division. The emphasis was as much social / historical as musical, designed for students with a broad age range and varied cultural and educational backgrounds. When I got to the 1950s, there was much to discuss: stylistic change; the conflict between “East Coast”/ “West Coast,” both social circumstances and musical values; the radical shift in representation that came with the long-playing record. I would begin with Miles Davis’s 1954 recording of “Walkin’,” an edgy tune that slowed down bop and had a freshly funky edge, as well as stretching to nearly 14 minutes.

When we got to the 10-minute mark of “Walkin’,” the beginning of Horace Silver’s solo, I’d let it play for another 30 seconds, stop the record and ask if anyone had noticed anything different or strange. Maybe at first just a couple had. Then I’d back up the CD to the relevant passage and play it again, sometimes a couple of times, most students noticing something strange going on with key and tempo, a few more catching the markedly incongruous, interpolated melody. Eventually a few students would identify the sudden insertion of a moment from Walt Disney’s 1940 film Pinocchio: the moment when Jiminy Cricket, that cartoon cricket in top hat and tails, sings:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

I won’t labor the contrasts (creative, economic, racial) between the gritty reality reflected in NYC bop and blues and California Disney studio fantasy, or the corresponding gap between work opportunities for New York jazz musicians and West Coast studio musicians, the latter putting out best-selling and poll-winning jazz records in between recording film soundtracks and pop records. Silver’s inserted quotation seems like ideal social comment, invoking worlds in collision with just a few notes.


© 2023 Stuart Broomer


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