Foundry 616, October 4
Improvisation is always a dialogue, even when only one person is playing. The musician is in dialogue with the instrument, the composed material (if it exists), the room’s acoustics and the audience. If, as here, the instrument is a piano, further dialogue exists between left hand and right, and between playing the keyboard and playing the strings.
Here were dialogues to restore the faith. As the world crumbles into vulgarity, vitriol and worse, one felt blessed – privileged, even – to hear solo performances by pianists of the calibre of Mark Isaacs and Mike Nock. Both played unamplified, heightening the intimacy and spotlighting the humanity and distinctive touch of each. Given that Nock has been reviewed much more recently than Isaacs I shall dwell on the latter’s performance.
Opting for one long improvisation, Isaacs traversed continents of diversity and oceans of harmonic language. Counterpoint was a striking feature of his work, the contrapuntal invention sometimes being so multi-layered and complex that the music seemed to spear in several directions simultaneously. This came amid an ongoing structural dialogue between density and drama on the one hand and sparsity and pools of meditative beauty on the other.
Even when the music was at its gentlest and simplest a ferocious intensity was at work, so the most innocent melodic material could suddenly be coloured by darker harmonies, and when Isaacs unleashed the full drama of the piano’s crashing bass-register it conjured the collision of tectonic plates. At the end, when he unexpectedly landed upon the melody of Greensleeves, it seemed like a prayer.
Perhaps in dialogue with all that had gone before Nock opted to improvise on song-forms. It was like the work of a miniaturist contrasting with a painter of massive canvases. Within these miniatures one could relish his rounded tone, supple grooves and effortless lyricism. These qualities were notable in the lilting waltz of Bernie McGann’s Spirit Song, a dialogue between the warmth of Nock in the “now” and the compositional legacy of one of our most distinctive musicians.
Mark Isaacs: Camelot Lounge, November 2.