Pianist Aaron Diehl cross-cuts jazz styles with a dive into their baroque and classical roots

No one was looking at their watches during straight-through 90-minute performance at Phillips Collection Sunday Concerts

The easiest thing for many highly qualified, especially classically trained, musicians to try to do is to cross genres in an effort to be relevant to the cultural world of 2020. Demonstrably harder to do is to present a coherent reason for crossing over these musical boundaries and to create a synthesis for a diverse range of listeners.

Aaron Diehl. Photo by Maria Jarzyna.

Pianist-composer Aaron Diehl essentially erases boundaries rather crossing over them. Yet at the same time, his music also clearly pays direct tribute to specific eras of classical and popular music, and even particular composers and historically significant jazz pianists.

In a straight-through 90-minute program on Sunday at The Phillips Collection, Diehl created a unique back-and-forth arc across musical expression, with no felt need for a break or intermission. A neat touch was his way of pausing only after every few numbers to deliver some guidance or philosophy on what was coming next, while letting the music carry through multiple selections otherwise.

One of Diehl’s most intriguing numbers came near the beginning, with his arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s March from 10 Pieces, opus 12. Prokofiev’s youthful early music is very spiky to begin with, and Diehl spun some extended jazz riffs toward the middle and top of the keyboard and pointy accents further down for a great synthesis.

In some cases, Diehl presented without rearrangement (at least not evidently so) original jazz compositions by some genre icons. One of the best was Diehl’s performance of Four in One by Thelonious Monk, a composer who was known to go beyond the easy-sounding riffs of the “bebop” era of jazz into harder-edged rhythms and dissonances. It’s an extended, rather busy number in which it is possible to pick out classical elements of counterpoint and fugue.

But you shouldn’t picture Diehl as pounding away at the piano or just a piano-bar artist. His accents are clear, but Diehl actually rarely plays the piano very loudly, and his touch is an extraordinary match for the unbelievably mellifluous sound of the Phillips Collection’s Steinway grand piano, which was essentially rebuilt a few years ago with a new soundboard from Alaska Sitka wood by PianoCraft of Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Aaron Diehl. Photo by Jaime Kahn.

In fact, Diehl made a point of playing straight, without rearrangement, two selections from the baroque and classical literature. He performed the Prelude and Fugue in G minor from the first of two books of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Phillips program notes for Diehl said these Bach works have permeated into jazz largely by virtue of the Jacques Loussier Trio, which did rearrange the works, but Diehl’s playing the early 18th-century works straight was part of his program’s appeal and arc. Diehl had earlier added the “Passepied” (a dance form) from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque.

Perhaps a central highlight of the entire program was Diehl’s performance of the theme from the second movement of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, as rearranged by the master jazz piano stylist Art Tatum. This theme has come down to the present day as the spiritual Goin’ Home. Notably, since Diehl’s performance was part of a preview of an upcoming special exhibition at the Phillips Collection called Riffs and Relations: African-American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, Diehl’s written program was careful to note that Dvorak didn’t “steal” the tune for Goin’ Home. Rather it was an original melody of his that was later adapted by one of his students, William Arms Fisher, as the spiritual known today.

Tatum’s arrangement of Goin’ Home was ideally situated under Diehl’s hands. Tatum has an immediately recognizable way of splattering notes in various registers of the keyboard, but the trick is largely in letting the piano do the work. Constant pullbacks in dynamics after significant riffs, especially in the ultra-clear acoustics of the Phillips’ Music Room, are part of the key to this performance. (Art Tatum is probably the most cited and performed jazz pianist by classical concert pianists, and I’ve seen some of them fail this test and pound this music into the ground.)

Diehl also performed two significant compositions by Duke Ellington, New World A-Comin’ and The Single Petal of a Rose from The Queen’s Suite, and an original composition of his own, The Vagabond, from a new album of his. The Vagabond has a delicately beautiful melody in the style of a past significant jazz pianist, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group whose somewhat easy style mixing piano and vibraphone and avoiding saxophones and brass was emulated in Diehl’s early recordings. But in this new composition Diehl adds flashes of the “hard bop” style of Thelonious Monk heard earlier in the concert. John Lewis’ style also was represented earlier in the program with an ingratiating work called Milano.

The final extended piece of the program was something of a killer. Composed in 2006 and 2007 by American composer and pianist Timo Andres, it’s extremely conceptual in what it expresses and required quite a long spoken introduction by Diehl. Called enigmatically How can I live in your world of ideas? the work is basically a battle between “two pianists” (or different characters embodied by a single keyboard performer), or perhaps two philosophical universes.

Here Diehl let go with more direct accents on the piano including at the very bottom and top of the keyboard. This was the closest the concert came to so-called “contemporary classical music” with some borrowings from jazzy skittering figures and chord progressions, but fully part of the current serious literature, as befits Diehl’s appearance at Phillips in one of the region’s leading “classical” series.

It was hard to believe when the Andres work was over that a full 1½ hours had passed – not very different from the very best of one-act musicals where no one is looking at their watch. Not many concerts like this are likely to be duplicated in the region any time this season.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Pianist Aaron Diehl performed on February 23, 2020, in the Sunday Concerts at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St NW, Washington, DC. For Aaron Diehl’s upcoming concert schedule, see his tour page. For the rest of the season schedule in the Phillips Collection’s Music Room, see the Phillips Music website.

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