Stabinsky Stabilizes the Chaos of Shock Jazz

Stabinsky Free For One - COVER

FREE FOR ONE / STABINSKY: …After It’s Over; 31; Viral Infection; Gone Song; For Reel; Not Long Now/Long Now; Rapture; Once, But Again… / Ron Stabinsky, pianist / Hot Cup Records 151

Pianist Ron Stabinsky, a member of the “shock jazz” band Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK), here steps forward with a solo disc of improvised originals created and recorded in one day: January 9, 2015. Perhaps because he plays here as soloist and not as part of a band, or perhaps because of his extensive experience in playing classical concerts and accompanying community choirs, Stabinsky’s music has, to my ears, a more cohesive approach than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants style of his “parent band.”

Which isn’t to say that MOPDtK is not an excellent group within its genre, only that their style often employs a fly-apart view towards each piece performed, almost what one could call a “deconstructionist” view of music. Stabinsky, on his own, presents a more coherent view while working within the same general framework. In comparing the album that MOPDtK made with him (Mauch Chunk, Hot Cup Records) to one they previously did without him (Slippery Rock) as well as a live set from February 2012 at the Porgy & Bess nightclub, one hears how the pianist works within their framework. His innate gravity towards chording (and tonality) helps ground the ensemble in many places, and in those wild, “outside” solos taken by alto saxist Jon Irabagon, Stabinsky plays a bit outside himself yet also stays within himself—and this, in turn, has a beneficial effect on the group sound (i.e., Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe, West Bolivar with its quasi-bossa nova beat, or the rhythmically asymmetrical Obelisk, near the end of which Stabinsky plays repetitive keyboard flutters in imitation of Philip Glass’ minimalism).

A perfect example of Stabinsky’s solo art is Viral Infection, the one piece from the album made available for free preview streaming on SoundCloud. What sounds at first like a disconnect of his two hands, with the right playing a repeated four-note motif against a bass line that is “out of synch” with it, quickly develops into a further exploration of that same motif with Stabinsky working out melodic cells or fragments which he then fits into the surrounding material. By the one-minute mark we are already into a development section, so to speak, with the left hand now playing a repeated single-note motif, which quickly evolves into a two-handed exploration of single notes in both hands, then disintegrates into a few chords before Stabinsky moves into new melodic material. By the 3:30 mark, Viral Infections has moved into a nervous jangle of rhythmic cells played in the right hand, while the left moves against it in both single notes and occasional chords. Although this is in an entirely different style, his approach reminds me of Charles Mingus’ solo piano album: a composer working out compositions at the keyboard.

Ron_Stabinsky_photo_by_Ssirus PakzadStabinsky has a superb technique but, oddly enough, does not flaunt it as, for instance, Cecil Taylor did for so many years. Moreover, where Taylor only just gave listeners the skeleton of a piece, i.e. the girders and their connectors without the walls or floors, Stabinsky makes sure we “hear” the whole structure…eventually. It’s like telling a story by metaphor; and when each little story ends it does so abruptly. There are no tidy, neat wrap-ups to these quirky jazz fairy tales. …After It’s Over, the opening track, evinces the same sort of rhythmic quirkiness as Viral Infection; one might almost call it Monk on acid, or Monk meets Taylor, or something of the sort, except that Stabinsky’s fingering is smoother than Thelonious’ own, and when the ideas begin to flow they do so in an unbroken stream. Those listeners with extensive jazz collections and/or long memories may mentally compare Stabinsky’s work here with the jazz improvisations of Lennie Tristano. Schooled in classical music as well as bebop, Tristano synthesized the elements of Charlie Parker’s style (which he greatly admired…he was good friends with Bird for a time) into an almost polyphonic web. Stabinsky, perhaps unconsciously, is also synthesizing his jazz excursions into classical molds, but more modern and fluid ones. Interestingly, nearly all his work here is rhythmically daring, almost avant-garde, while his use of harmony—despite using unusual chord positions—is more conventionally tonal. If you listen, for instance, to Erroll Garner’s improvised introduction to Way Down Yonder in New Orleans on Too Marvelous for Words Vol. 3, you’ll hear something quite similar to the kind of work Stabinsky does here, except that he extends this brinksmanship throughout each piece.

By doing so, Stabinsky keeps the listener grounded. Those with big ears and a wealth of experience listening to both modern jazz and modern classical music will be able to keep up with each twist and turn in these eight works, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. In each piece Stabinsky utilizes a different rhythm (quite virtuosic, almost Oscar Peterson-ish, in 31) while exploring and deconstructing whatever he has invented in the first chorus. Gone Song is very slow, almost a synthesis of Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral with Bartókian harmonies. At this slow a pace, the single-note left hand explorations almost sound like a “crawl” that is attempting to “catch up” with whatever the right is doing at each particular moment. Who knows? Perhaps it is! Around the three-minute mark, however, both hands are clearly in synch and the music gradually increases in volume as Stabinsky develops the piece via continuous rhythmic displacements; then, both volume and density ebb as he moves towards the end. For Reel almost sounds like Viral Infection on steroids, and here Stabinsky really does work up a sort of swing in the music—or, at least, it sounds that way to the ear as he continually pushes it forward…but this one comes to a crashing halt after only 1:06!

This is one thing I like about Stabinsky’s work: he only plays a piece as long as his imagination keeps things moving. If he runs out of ideas, he wraps the piece up and moves on to the next. Ever since the LP was invented and jazz musicians were allowed to extend their music beyond the three- or four-minute mark, it seemed as if garrulousness was the order of the day, and most jazz musicians simply didn’t have that much to say. Not Long Now/Long Now strikes the ear like a bit of jazz minimalism, one might say Philip Glass with crushed chords and more Monkish rhythmic quirks. Stabinsky also uses space interestingly in this one, pausing often around the four-minute mark to allow his ideas to coalesce…or perhaps it was a bit of breathing space for him until he could think of where to go next. But this is one of the longest pieces on the CD, so Stabinsky was evidently ruminating as he was creating. To most listeners there is no lack of invention, just those unusual pauses in the musical line. By the ten-minute mark, Stabinsky is happily evolving his musical line into new territory, apparently having found the musical cells he likes best and moving them around his mental chess board. The allusion to The Engulfed Cathedral recurs as he slows down even more for the quiet ending.

More of the same is heard in Rapture and the album’s closer, Once, But Again… which is actually the most lyrical piece on the album. One can only assume that Stabinsky’s presence in MOPDtK is beneficial to their often-rebellious attitude towards form; certainly, this debut solo album is mightily impressive in its own right.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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