While the agitated pace of jazz has marched on in the last several decades, the jazz sphere has truly dropped the ball to sing the joyful returns of brilliant musicians such as pianist Hal Schaefer. This lack of due recognition and pointed attention to Schaefer illustrates this lamentable status of the jazz scene prototype today.
Listening to Schaefer recordings hastens me to realize his uncompromising performances on the 88 keys is much like an analogy to a gem of a “Brilliant” cut diamond, cut in some 88 facets. This interesting parallel draws on Hal's striking musicality and mental keeness.
Aptly titled Brilliant!, this CD reaches high water mark achievements in color and sound in his solo interpretations. His compelling creativeness is well planted in the nutritious turf and strengths of legendary pianist Art Tatum, especially his tone and fertile dynamics. Hal loses himself in his music with no creative boundaries.
Hal's dossier includes earlier solo piano recordings in his discography, both on Summit Records: June 1st and How Do You Like This Piano Playing? Together with this CD, Brilliant!, the three recordings form a fascinating trilogy.
Chatting with Hal is profitable as he shares his kinetic blend of values and emotions.
The backdrop for the music of this newest CD includes Hal's own archives. In 2005 he recorded solo piano interpretations. He has a grand piano at home and a keyboard in an adjoining studio. Hal had resurrected the one-take-only performances.
Hal claims that these are his best-ever solos. It's not a surprising assertion, coming from a musician brimming with imagination and invention. He says he is supposed to get better playing the piano. He relates hearing an interview with Clint Eastwood about his film directing. Clint said, “It's supposed to get better and if it doesn't get better, I'll stop directing.” Hal has adopted the same philosophy.
Hal's influential and stylistic roots have ben inspired by the jazz piano icon, Art Tatum. Since age six, he had been taking classical iano lessons. At age twelve, he heard Art Tatum and stopped his classical direction, because it was too restrictive. Hal tried doing imitations of Tatum; he would play a recorded piece by him and would try to imitate what he just heard. This was a goal for him at this time. He was playing well at age sixteen and at eighteen he was playing with top musicians.
Addressing the attributes and risks of solo piano, Hal points out, “You're always exposed and solo piano is unique!” He sayd that he can think and feel all that comes to him at that moment without what a bassist or drummer might play. So he gains total freedom by playing alone; therefore, playing solo is a natural experience.
I find Hal's process of periodic reworking of certain tunes to be stimulating. He has revised tunes such as “Tenderly,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “I Remember April”several times. He loves those tunes and their harmonic structure and greets them like old friends.
What Hal chooses to play he plays with his heart and soul. His artful merger of the past, present, and future is articulated at the same time. Hal says that music is the spatial art that combines a present and future, and what you play now depends on what bar you played before and what's coming up in the next bar.
Hal's repertoire commands a large archive from the Great American Song Book. As he says, they were among main song sources when he started playing gigs in clubs around New York City. Obviously, the standard tunes are vital for a piano player's basic vocabulary.
Hal has had a heavy impact on singers he has coached. Teaching singers for many years contributes to how he plays solo piano. He has been involved with the lyric, the words and semantics.
Both perceptible passion and compassion of Hal's distinctive imprint is evident as he weaves judiciously through the quick Tatum-like runs.
The opening tune, “Pennies From Heaven,” carries Hal's fresh treatment and the resonance of the astute segue into “I Can't Get Started With You.” Hal said, “I just love the bridge and the feeling of the tune. It is poignant nostalgia for me, and brings memories of Bunny Berigan's classic trumpet solo.”
“At Long Last Love” is seldom heard and deserves more attention.
“I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face” is from Hal's favorite Broadway score, My Fair Lady. It has a lovely feeling. Hal says, “It's harmonically straight-forward.”
“What Is This Thing Called Love?” Hal describes, “It just laid onto my fingers and I see it in a bright mood.”
A piece that is a kicker and fun is “All of Me.”
“You Are Too Beautiful” is a piece that is lyrically appealing to Hal as he exlains that, “the lyric runs around my head a lot.”
“Gone With The Wind” is so attractive that “it is ripe and ready to go places and is a beautifully inventive piece,” says Hal.
“Exactly Like You” is in a slow, easy tempo, the way Hal intended it. And Hal says that it allows for a double-time feeling.
“Too Marvelous For Words,” music by Richard Whiting and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is a winner!
“Almost Like Being In Love,” according to Hal, is an ethereal piece. He says, “It is a fantasy of my dreams.”
“Tenderly” is the popular song composed by Walter Gross. Hal used to listen to a regular broadcast which opened with this selection.
“Have You Met Miss Jones?” is played by Hal to convey a “portrait” of Miss Jones.
“I Could Write A Book” is a finger popping swinger with a built-in natural swing urge. The phrasing of the tune is like a Basie swinger.
To close the set he included a bonus of two tracks from a recent concert. “Strange As It Seems” is music by Hal Schaefer and lyrics by Brenda Schaefer.
Hal's interpretation of “The Lord's Prayer” is a brilliant and fitting anchor to the recording.
A brief post script refers to Hal's interface with Duke Ellington and merits how he embraced Hal's piano performances. “Duke was my mentor and I was his protege. At the time when Duke's orchestra was residing and playing in the Los Angeles ballrooms, he insisted that my trio be featured on the gigs and during the orchestra's intermissions. Duke regularly introduced me and my trio as follows: 'And now you're going to hear a real piano player!” Hal's bassist was Joe Mondragon and on drums was Alvin Stoller, both exceptional jazz musicians.
Yes, Hal Schaefer is a brilliant jazz musician. He belongs on the world jazz map. Brilliant! is pure poetry!
Dr. Herb Wong, December 2010