Pianist Billy Lester is a musical original. That’s obvious from the first, oh, 17 seconds of Unabridged, his sixth album and second all-solo recording.
Listen to the unusual, brief motif with which Lester opens “Overture: Passionate Musings,” then develops, complicates and completes it faster than you’d tie a shoelace. Pause -- and he continues. Not to just recapitulate or elaborate the cell-like theme through variation, but to expand it as a theme in a concentrated, melodically flowing way that’s not exactly “songlike,” or modal, either. Call it the genre of no genre.
Because what Lester does here contains sonic elements that might be identified with compositional modernism, contemporary “classical” music, or sounds that seem to exist as if only sprung from themselves – it’s not so obvious that he arrives at his singularity through decades of deep devotion to and teaching of the music we all call jazz. Swing, the blues and American songbook standards, jazz icons as well as major composers of the Western classical tradition are Lester’s touchstones, regardless of that fact that what he’s creating now ignores, sidesteps, bypasses or abstracts virtually all American music’s basic conventions.
But Lester is secure in his identity. “At times I’ve played for people and they’re very surprised to find what I do is jazz, and that it’s improvised,” says the pianist, who started at his instrument when he was four, and has kept at it for some 60 years. “My music here is entirely improvised,” he asserts. “This is simply the first time I’ve released anything free-form.”
Free-form -- “free jazz”? -- isn’t typically what we associate with such of Billy Lester’s heroes as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano and Sal Mosca, his most directly influential teacher. They all jazzed, advanced and fans believe improved strains of repertoire familiar in their day. Although Tristano, whom Lester met during his teens and hung out with, did record the first freely improvised jazz sides, “Intuition” and “Digression,” in 1949, he and his acolyte Mosca, too, insisted that their students thoroughly absorb a canon of classic performances before venturing to establish voices much less styles of their own. After half a century of effort, Billy Lester has reached the level of accomplished self-possession to do that.
Notice: If there is no canonical gesture or typical structure involving chord progressions or constraining scales in “Musings” (or “Jamba Swing,” “Spree-ing,” “Self-Encounters” or the first half of Unabridged’s “Finale”), there is instead throughout these pieces a seemingly organic unfolding of an inherently individualistic ideas that return or reappear, transformed, as they evolve. In “Musings” Lester keeps his fingers on that idea, lets them loose to circle around it, comes to an element of it that attracts him (though he does not precisely restate it) again and again and concludes with a chord which hasn’t been voiced this way before, but has certainly been foreshadowed, or even fated. Hard to tell. Listen again.
Or go on to “Jamba Swing,” which Lester describes as his breakthrough into unselfconscious spontaneity, recorded in 2013 at Oktaven Audio, the Yonkers, NY studio of Ryan Streber which has become a conducive setting for his most introspective efforts. Billy says that on the occasion he played that, “For the first time in my life, my music felt like just my music. Even though I’m indebted to so many wonderful artists of the past, I felt I’d become independent. There had been so much jazz in my head that I had yet to express because I felt in some way restricted by the tunes, by the standards. It took me up until that day to realize that I had the freedom and permission to just let it all pour out.”
Paradoxically or ironically or naturally enough, pouring it out as Lester does it results not in thunderous exploding energies, but rather incisively focused explorations. In his entirely unmediated pieces here – including “Spree-ing,” “Self-Encounters” and the first half of “Finale” -- his pulse may become urgent, his left hand may abandon comping to take an independent along its own course, his right might track tunefulness in the uppermost register, but somehow this is all tethered to the jazz roots with which he began instead of some negating or revolutionary impulse.
Similarly in “One After Another,” where he refers at least in his own mind to Harry Warren’s 1942 hit “There Will Never Be Another You”; in “Blues for Charlie Christian” which is, indeed, a blues if an altered one; in “Songbook Harmonies,” based on Richard Whiting’s “Too Marvelous for Words” (of 1937) and “Finale,” which slips into Gene de Paul’s “I’ll Remember April” (also from ‘42). There is no gulf separating Lester’s performance of the wholly imagined – spontaneous composition or free-form improvisation, call it what you will -- from his ostensible interpretations of others’ compositions. All this music is his own.
“I suppose my improvisations arise from an accumulation of the listening I’ve done, attaching that music to my own feelings,” Billy explains. “When it’s working, it’s not a conscious effort, it just keeps coming, and I’m always surprised. Much as I’ve practiced certain exercises or chords, they all get thrown to the wind, and I’m the edge. Stuff comes out that I’ve never played before.
“For the past 25 or so years I’ve had a discipline where I’ll sit at the piano, all the lights out, and look into myself to find in what part of my body my feelings are. Sometimes I’ll sit for a half hour before anything happens. But if I wait long enough, that sense of where the feeling is turns into a sound. I’ll sing that sound and try to find it on the piano. This has become a very pleasurable and meaningful exercise to me. I know that whatever sound I hear is mine, without doubt. That’s become the bottom line for my approach to the piano and to jazz.”
Lester’s earlier albums -- Four Into Four, Visceral, At Liberty and Captivatin’ Rhythm -- were small group projects involving quartets and trios. Around 2010 he stopped playing with other people, to devote himself to solo expression, and his album Story Time was his first set by himself. “I started thinking that Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Lennie Tristano and Sal Mosca were all soloists,” he recalls, “and I started pursuing that direction. When I’m playing alone I can pick the key, change the tempo, play free, pick a tune – do whatever’s in my head. I don’t need to worry if someone’s coming along with me. The piano, as I conceive of it, is an orchestra. I’m using all my knowledge and love of music to express my self.
“My music doesn’t come out of the sky. I’m a big fan of Bach, Beethoven, Bartok and Chopin as well as the classic jazz titans. But I can say now that what I’ve always respected about all these people is that they were individuals and didn’t feel they had to be anything but themselves. That’s a message I got from them: That they were free. I’ve always wanted to be free, even though I knew for me that it would be a long journey, requiring a lot of work.
“Now I hear certain phrases I’ve played – without trying isn’t the word for the experience, it’s just happening – that remind me of my personality. I hope my music will be a bit of a window into people knowing who I am. That’s always been my intent: to offer listeners something of the subjective part of the person creating the music. If the listener recognizes something of themselves from the notes I strike in myself, if they can see themselves with me or through me – that’s very gratifying.”
To find such resonant chords, meant to stir listeners where we ourselves really live, Billy Lester has sought the wisdom of musical masters, purged himself of artifice and honestly offered his intimate all. What we get is something precious, one man’s art: Unabridged.
-- Howard Mandel, ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz
President of the Jazz Journalists Association