CD reviews

Thu, Jul 11, 2013 - Page 11

DON’T LOOK DOWN, Skylar Grey, KidinaKorner/Interscope

Revenge is the best revenge in Skylar Grey’s songs. Grey can be long-suffering, and she might even savor some of the torment, the better to examine it and house it in a dignified melody. She also writes about offering support, pulling herself together and moving on after a breakup. But when pushed too far, she counterattacks. In Final Warning, a song on her new album, Don’t Look Down, she sings, “Someone’s gonna get hurt/and it’s not gonna be me,” with breathy savoir-faire.

Don’t Look Down is her first album as Skylar Grey, the name she adopted in 2010. But she released her debut solo album in 2006 as Holly Brook, a brooding, piano-playing singer-songwriter. She’s not hiding her past; her songwriting credit throughout Don’t Look Down is as Holly Hafermann (Brook is her middle name), and solo piano opens and closes the album. But the name change shifted her sound and persona. As Skylar Grey, she’s still brooding, but her songs now also have the bluntness, electronic sizzle and rhythmic muscle of hip-hop; she also favors the higher, more cutting end of her vocal range. Her doormat days are ending.

Grey is the latest sensitive songwriter taking a career path through hip-hop. A rapper, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, released Holly Brook’s debut album, Like Blood Like Honey, through his own label. Her bigger break was to collaborate in 2010 with an English hip-hop producer, Alex Da Kid, on a bitterly accusatory ballad, Love the Way You Lie, that Eminem turned into a multimillion-selling single. Eminem and Alex Da Kid are the album’s executive producers; Eminem raps on Grey’s sarcastic flirtation, C’mon Let Me Ride.

On the album, Grey’s influences can be obvious: Fiona Apple in Wear Me Out and Pulse, Alanis Morissette in Religion, Elton John in Back From the Dead, Dido in Final Warning. But she finds unusual situations for her narrators: left behind by an ex’s success in Tower (Don’t Look Down) , unwed and pregnant in a song with a title that can’t be printed here. For Grey, angst, melody and a hip-hop backbone are a promising combination. She performs on Thursday night at Le Poisson Rouge.

— Jon Pareles, NY Times News Service

HEART OF THE PIANO, Geoffrey Keezer, Motema

The pianist Geoffrey Keezer has spent the entirety of his professional career — beginning in the late 1980s, when he was a teenage prodigy — working one or another kind of ensemble magic. If you saw him then, it probably would have been with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, gamely addressing group cohesion as a contact sport.

If you’ve seen Keezer recently, it was likely in more delicate circumstances, backing the trumpeter Chris Botti or the singer Dianne Reeves. (If you’ve heard him on record recently, maybe it was Signing, his collaboration with the vibraphonist Joe Locke, released on Motema last year.) The common denominator is his gift for enhancing the formula of a group, serving as both catalyst and binding agent.

So what to expect from Heart of the Piano, a solo recording by Keezer, who has released just one other album in that format before? Solo albums by jazz pianists tend to be summations, declarations of self, and that’s a good way of looking at this one.

The repertory includes only one song you’d consider a standard, the traditional Scottish ballad My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose. There are tunes by pop artists presently occupying the lower quadrant of cool: Rush, Peter Gabriel, KT Tunstall, Alanis Morissette. There are two originals, which skew either classically rhapsodic (Chirizakura) or exploratory and tough (Grunion Run).

And there’s one composition apiece by the older jazz pianists James Williams and Donald Brown, who both preceded Keezer in the Jazz Messengers, and have had an influence on his style. It’s instructive to keep Williams in the back of your mind when you hear Keezer’s gospel-infused arrangement of Limelight, the Rush song; likewise Gabriel’s Come Talk to Me, which he tricks out with sparkling arpeggios.

The pianism on Heart of the Piano is never less than impressive: rhythmically sure, harmonically sound, full of brisk subtleties of touch. And yet Keezer, who will play one set in celebration of the album on Tuesday evening at Birdland, rarely sounds as if he’s in exhibition mode. The dazzling breadth of his playing feels warranted, because for him a solo piano record is no occasion for solitude.

— Nate Chinen, NY Times News Service

GHIL, Okkyung Lee, Ideologic Organ/Editions Mego

Okkyung Lee’s Ghil consists of nine solo-cello improvisations. It is not the standard solo-cello recording ideal: it has no room tone, no physical distance for the slowly decaying notes to reach your ear. Instead, imagine the making of a large and sophisticated knife: the sawing and buffing and quenching and grinding and drilling and precise heat treatments. Imagine the knife is also a microphone, and the knifemaker is an improviser.

Lee, who is Korean, has worked in New York since 2000 in a lot of different contexts: with improvisers like Evan Parker and Peter Evans, with the turntablist and conceptual artist Christian Marclay, with the performance artist Laurie Anderson. Some of her earlier records, Nihm and Noisy Love Songs, put her textured playing over minimal composed sections for small ensembles. They were good, often restrained and elegant, mediated by their time and place. Ghil is of no time or place and has no need for the construct of elegance. It’s directly from Lee, with edits but no overdubs. You’re not hearing traditional technique, but you are hearing an excellent musician’s physical and emotional connection to her instrument. You’re inside the connection, basically. These are real noisy love songs.

It was produced by Lasse Marhaug, the Norwegian noise musician, who recorded Lee last year in a number of different locations in and around Oslo — indoors, outdoors, downtown, in a forest — all on a portable cassette recorder from, apparently, 1976. Sometimes an amplifier seems to be involved, sometimes not; sometimes the sound overpowers the gear and the recording breaks up. You’ll understand it as a part of the record, not a flaw.

The microphone placement keeps a respectful distance on the first track, “The Crow Flew After Yi Sang,” but soon it’s directly on the instrument. You hear the friction of bow on strings, and the competing frequencies of notes in a chord, beating like a giant engine. Lee gets into repetition and drones — the last three minutes of The Space Beneath My Grey Heart is something to hear — but she’s constantly making decisions, moving toward some area of greater resonance, greater intensity.

— Ben Ratliff, NY Times News service