Saturday, July 21, 2012

CD Review: Jeremy Siskind's "Finger-Songwriter"

l2r: Jeremy Siskind, Nancy Harms,
Lucas Pino
The third song on the latest recording by pianist/composer Jeremy Siskind asks, “What is that feeling you feel?” You might ask yourself that question as you hear “Finger-Songwriter,” an exquisitely beautiful hour-long journey of emotion, intimacy, poetry and reflection.

Siskind, a terrific young pianist who studies with Sophia Rosoff* and Fred Hersch, is joined by two kindred spirits for his third CD (after “Prophecy” in 2007 and “Simple Songs” in 2010): Nancy Harms and Lucas Pino. Harms is a singer of considerable gifts; she’s a storyteller, a flirt, a blithe spirit, a deeply serious interpreter of song, and a femme fatale whose voice includes just enough breath to knock you over. I’ve been enchanted by her since I first saw her sing in April 2008. Pino is new to me, but his saxophones and clarinets close the circle of Siskind’s piano and Harms’s voice. Together they make a whole. The bass and drums aren’t missed, although Pino’s bass clarinet sometimes (and at just the right times) sounds like arco double bass.

(* I’m guessing most of you know who Fred Hersch is but some of you might not be familiar with Sophia Rosoff. See Sarah Deming’s “The Emotional Rhythm of Sophia Rosoff.” Siskind makes an appearance in this fascinating piece.)

Because of how it unfolds, “Finger-Songwriter” should be experienced as a whole, from start to finish. If you skip around or download single tracks, you’ll miss the point, at least on first listen. Once you’ve heard it through a few times, it’s okay to have favorites.

The opening song, “One Art (for Elizabeth Bishop),” introduces the theme of loss, which is thoroughly explored by the time we reach the final song, “Theme for a Sunrise (for H.W. Longfellow)." Rather than compose new lyrics, Siskind, who holds a Master’s in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia, mined and “Frankensteined” (his word) literary texts by writers including Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Kerouac, Borges, Wallace Stevens, Nabokov, and Longfellow. Why more composers don't do this is a mystery.

“One Art,” a wistful waltz, begins on piano, softly, delicately. About two minutes in, Pino’s saxophone enters whispering, repeating and ornamenting the melody. Almost four minutes pass before Harms sings: “I’d like to learn how to lose/By losing something new every day … I was so good at losing you … You smiled through tears in the winter’s frost/Perhaps you knew that without you I’m lost.” Once through, not repeated, and devastating.

In “Vanished Music, Twilit Water (for Seamus Heaney),” Harms does something I’ve never heard her do: jump an octave. Who’s surprised that the results are perfect and pure? I’m not. This is already one of the most remarkable recordings I’ve heard in a very long time. Siskind is known mainly as a jazz pianist, Harms as a jazz singer, but this is chamber music and these are art songs. In the bluesy “What Is That Feeling? (for Jack Kerouac),” the music swings, at first in a loose and lazy way, then hard, fronted by Pino’s tenor saxophone. The lyrics are world-weary: “The two-lane highway is endless night … Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry.” In “A Single Moment (for Lisa Hannigan),” which begins with Harms a cappella, we’re given a glimmer of hope in lyrics sung through a veil of breath with a hint of a smile. “The Inevitable Letdown (for Steven Millhauser)” is all sass and attitude, infused with roadhouse stride. With “Mirrors I (for Borges)” we’re back to ballads, which is probably where this trio is strongest due to Siskind’s gorgeous, painterly compositions and an ability all three share: to play (or sing) with gauzy softness without sacrificing meaning or articulation. You’ll hold your breath and lean in to hear, but it’s all there. “Mirrors I” ends abruptly – almost too abruptly. Pino’s arco-bass-clarinet simply fades.

For “More Mist than Moon (for Wallace Stevens),” Siskind doesn’t even give Harms real lyrics to sing. Her wordless syllables soar above the music. We’re clearly in the land of the art song now, and this is a lovely example. Over and over, on “Finger-Songwriter,” Harms stretches her voice, pushing it higher than she has in the past. It’s exciting new territory.

“Swift-Winged Darkness (for Vladimir Nabokov)” is part tango, part Edgar Allan Poe: “Swift-winged darkness falls/It’s creeping down the stairwell as we drink a farewell toast and reminisce/I wonder if I should give you one last poisoned kiss?” Deliciously sinister, performed with wit and style. “Mirrors II (for Borges)” is a reflection of “Mirrors I” and ends as abruptly. Siskind makes an interesting choice to separate them rather than follow one with the other. Maybe he’s influenced by Borges’ fear of mirrors?* “Aubade (for Paul Auster)” is chordy and romantic. The word “aubade” means “a morning love song; a song or poem of lovers parting at daybreak.” Knowing this, we hear it differently. Harms adds a shimmer of vibrato, over which Pino’s bass clarinet casts shadows, like passing clouds. Siskind’s song cycle has emerged from the night into the light.

(* “I was always afraid of mirrors,” Borges said in 1971. “I had three large mirrors in my room when I was a boy and I felt very acutely afraid of them, because I saw myself in the dim light – I saw myself thrive over, and I was very afraid of the thought that perhaps the three shapes would begin moving by themselves.” — from “Borges: A Life” by James Woodall.)

“Theme for a Sunrise (for H.W. Longfellow),” technically the final song on the album, is the last of Siskind’s original compositions. It opens with a tricky, intricate dance between Harms’ voice and Pino’s clarinet: two overlapping, interlacing melodies, with jeweled glissandos from Siskind’s piano. It’s upbeat, joyful, set to the words of a pastoral poem: “I heard the shepherd sing in gentle swell a merry tune … I heard a bird in flight and saw the valley bathed in light.” (Here’s Longfellow’s “Sunrise on the Hills,” for comparison.) 

Siskind could have left us sunlit and contented, but he adds a bonus track, “All You Wanna Do Is Dance (for Billy Joel),” where the mood is “Loss and longing be damned, let’s party.” Siskind’s piano sparkles, Pino’s growling bass clarinet and its repeated ascending figure are almost comical, and Harms is wry and saucy. It’s a turn-that-frown-upside-down finish to an album that starts out dark and gets darker, plumbs the depths of heartbreak, touches on numbness and despair, and delivers a happy ending. Bravos all around.


“Finger-Songwriter was released in May 2012 by Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records. It’s available on CD through CD Baby and as a download on amazon. The trio is on tour through July 30 and will play a concert tonight (Saturday, July 21) at Jazz Central in Minneapolis.  Check Siskind’s website (click “Peer Into the Future”) to learn where they’re going next.

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