If they gave out medals for artistic courage, then young jazz pianist and composer Chris Donnelly deserves the Victoria Cross. For his second album, he has chosen not only to pursue the unique path of solo piano, but to record a single 50 minute composition. The creative risks he has taken have paid off, for Metamorphosis is a stunningly accomplished and richly rewarding work.
Metamorphosis is based on the 1939 work of that name by world-renowned Dutch graphic artist, MC Escher. Just as Escher's monumental graphic delights its viewers with its imaginative shape-shifting, Donnelly's composition takes the listener on a fascinating journey through a musical landscape that changes subtly and seamlessly. Chris explains that the concept behind his album dates back to 2008.
"I had started writing music after I released [debut CD] Solo, and I was reading a book called Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. I was intrigued by his idea that things are more related than we think they are, and by his explorations of concepts like infinity and recursive structures. Escher has a key role in the book, and one of his works included was Metamorphosis. I started thinking a lot about those themes while I was writing musical pieces that were all related on some level, melodically, rhythmically, and thematically."
Parallels between Escher's work and the compositions Donnelly was writing gradually became clearer, Chris says. "I had the idea of writing music like this picture. Start with a theme, and end with it, but write nine or ten tunes that are all related and bring them all together in this one piece. The result is a perfect balance of composition, improvisational structure, and challenging technique. There's a challenge in just sitting down and playing this that I found exciting."
That sense of excitement infused the recording session for Metamorphosis. Along with producer Peter Cardinali (head of Donnelly's record label, ALMA) and his technical crew, Donnelly set up shop in noted Toronto studio, The Drive Shed. "I had never played the piece right through before then," recalls Chris. "I was a little worried about endurance, but I think the adrenaline of being in this beautiful studio with an amazing Steinway piano took over."
Donnelly played the work in its entirety four separate times, then he and Cardinali chose their preferred take. That is the version you are now listening to. This recording method truly captures the adventurousness of the album's concept, and the sonic fidelity on display is of the highest order. The purity and clarity of Donnelly's piano playing is mesmerizing throughout, and confirms he possesses both technique and a musical maturity rare in an artist his age.
The poetic power of Metamorphosis has been recognized by Toronto's Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. He has written a 10 line poem inspired by the work, with each line serving as a title for each of the ten movements. It reads:
You are the dancer,
In the time-scape of sound
You enter the fountain,
Cresting, falling away,
In the chimera of notes.
You hear the voice,
In a blossom of water
Saying you are the azure,
The bough of time.
You are the dance.
The talent of the Toronto born and raised Donnelly was apparent very early on. At age three he enrolled in Humber College's Community Music School, and by 10 he was already improvising and playing in ensembles. He was simultaneously studying classical piano at The Royal Conservatory of Music, and, as he notes, "I was part of the first generation of jazz students and now professional musicians who started out with both a jazz and classical education." By the time he was in high school, Chris' passion for jazz was in full flower. "As well as people like Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, I'd see what my local heroes were doing, players like Brian Dickinson and Kirk MacDonald." he says. "I'd get to watch and hear them both in the Toronto clubs and when they came to Humber."
His next stop was The University of Toronto, where six years of intense study resulted in a Masters of Music in Jazz Performance. Chris studied under noted jazz pianist David Braid for two years there, and cites him as something of a mentor. Sensing his emerging talent, the University conferred the Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award upon Donnelly, an honour given to the student "deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music." Chris has wasted no time in living up to the terms of this award, and he is also now a professor at U of T.
Donnelly burst onto the Canadian jazz scene in dramatic fashion with his 2008 debut album, Solo, on ALMA Records. The record balanced inventive reinterpretations of jazz standards by the legendary likes of Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and seven original compositions that showcased his immense potential as a writer. Nominated for both Juno and National Jazz Awards, Solo won Donnelly the respect of his peers, while subsequent international touring confirmed Chris as an engaging performer.
Now, with Metamorphosis, Chris Donnelly is poised to take a quantum leap in his career. News of this project is already arousing international interest, and, in a real coup, the Escher estate has granted permission for Chris to reproduce the artist's work for the album cover. Tracking the artistic metamorphosis of this musical visionary promises to be a true pleasure.
Juno Nominated - Traditional Jazz Album of the Year
There is a fairytale quality about the recording debut of pianist extraordinaire, Chris Donnelly. It has to do with an unshakable belief in his art and a small miracle that happened when one of his demo CDs reached Canadian jazz music industry's man-on-a-mission, Peter Cardinali. That was in December of 2007. By March of 2008, so convinced was Peter Cardinali of the pianist's genius and the veracity of the recording that he decided that an Alma release was an absolute must. For this is an artist born of unbridled talent, blessed with an unsurpassed technique and a gift for telling stories and making music that will stick in the memory. And so here is the most celebrated 2008 recording by a jazz piano artist, "Solo" by Chris Donnelly.
Gently armed with a Masters of Music in Jazz Performance from the University of Toronto, Chris Donnelly is a pianist of unbridled talent, sublime technique and an impulse to create beautiful music. After completing his post-graduate studies. Donnelly plunged into the world of professional jazz music. He was, at the time of his post-graduation already awarded the Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award for Graduating Students, as he was "deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music". Not only did he wow the jury, just as he did his teachers at the music faculty, but Donnelly also caught the eye of a wide group of busy elder performing statesmen on Canada's Jazz scene. So that today, he has already performed with greats, Ted Quinlan, John McLeod, Heather Bambrick, William Carn and Quinsin Nachoff, to name just a few of the many artists who have had the benefit of his superlative skills behind the piano.
Through it all, Chris Donnelly believed that the art of the "solo piano" was his true calling. And so, despite the fact that solo playing - whether in the studio, or live, is a lonely pursuit, he managed to stay focused on his holy grail and the result is this fine and memorable record featuring seven brilliantly original compositions and four utterly original interpretations of classic songs by legendary jazz musicians - from the playful "Donna Lee - Variations" by Charlie Parker, to the majestic "Hallucinations" from the mercurial pen of Earl "Bud" Powell; and the Bill Evans' classic "Very Early" to the "Cinderella Medley - So This Is Love/A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" from the pens of Hoffman, David and Livingston.
The rest of the music comprises seven of Donnelly's own compositions. "For The Drifters" is a truly accomplished song, worthy of the pen of the great Walter Norris, while songs such as "Serenity" and "Winter's Waltz" are studies in controlled virtuosity. Perhaps the most memorable music of the set could well be the musical sketches that pay oblique musical tribute to modern composers and the love of his life. Two of these, were written with Erik Satie and Gabriel Faure in mind. The third was created to reflect a space within the heart and for Donnelly's wife, who is also an opera singer. These three 'Songs in B Minor" stand apart in the brilliance of their moody tonality and their melodic invention.
In many respects this hardly sounds like a "first" album, because Chris Donnelly's genius lies in his sophisticated maturity. And then there is the "small" matter of his superior technique, virtuosity and exceptional improvisational skills - all of these well beyond his years. It appears that Chris Donnelly can only be destined for the stellar regions of the world of music in general and jazz in particular.
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