Roberta Piket: Solo
Liner Notes by Bob Bernotas
“I get restless easily and I’m always looking for new challenges,” pianist Roberta Piket reflects about her decision to record, at this point in her career, a full-length solo album. A versatile musician, she’s played both straight-ahead jazz and free music. Her most recent CD, Sides, Colors, explored the pastel shades and supple textures of an ensemble enhanced with strings and woodwinds. Love and Beauty, from 2006, presented her advanced concept of the modern jazz piano trio. And on her 2003 release, I’m Back in Therapy and It’s All Your Fault, she experimented with electric instruments and groove-oriented pieces. So, for Roberta, a solo CD represents a new musical challenge, another fresh area of exploration, and the next step forward in her continuing growth as an artist.
“This is the first time I’ve done a recording of almost all standards,” she continues. “I felt that for my first solo recording I wanted to start with material as fundamental and malleable as the standard repertoire, a common reference point that I am very comfortable with.”
And she opens with a standard. Although not as prolific or renowned as the Gershwins or Rodgers and Hart, the team of lyricist Howard Dietz and composer Arthur Schwartz contributed generously to “The Great American Songbook,” and one of their finest is I See Your Face Before Me. There are echoes of the delicate, impressionistic textures of both Erik Satie and Bill Evans in Roberta’s evocative, harmonically sophisticated treatment of this lovely ballad.
“Thelonious Monk wrote such distinct melodies,” Roberta observes, “that they lend themselves to free improvisation.” One of the most characteristic of his compositions serves as her inspiration for Monk 1: Variations on a Dream, an improvised exploration unconfined by chord changes or meter, and a fitting prelude to the piece itself, offered here as Monk 2: Monk’s Dream.
“One of the things I like about the way Monk played his tunes,” she explains, “is that he solos on the melody as much as on the chord changes. And I think if you want to play a Monk tune, to do it justice you have to be aware of the melody.” Roberta’s thematically oriented rendering reflects the character of the piece and its composer, while blending her own personality into the Monkish mix.
Billy Strayhorn’s haunting Something to Live For, Roberta considers, “is such a beautiful song I didn’t feel as though it needed to be improvised on. It’s a perfect composition.” And so, her perceptive single chorus plus coda prove sufficient to bring out both the song’s inherent melancholy and longing, and its underlying agitation.
Roberta reconfigures Estate (pronounced “es-TAH-tay”), a popular Bossa Nova from the ’60s, from its original 4/4 meter into a surprisingly natural 7/4, her lush improvised lines flowing seamlessly into her undulating and rhythmically deceptive closing vamp. On Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti she employs a consciously thematic approach, harmonizing the tune differently each time she repeats its melody. When she begins her solo her left hand continues playing the melody as her right hand takes the tune into previously unexplored regions.
First recorded on her trio CD, Love and Beauty, Roberta’s original, Claude’s Clawed, she feels, “is different from anything else on this recording. It’s a more abstract kind of tune and the improvising is free. There are no chord changes, but there is still a time feel. This kind of up-tempo burner begs for a rhythm section, so it was a real challenge to make it work in a solo context.” Summoning a cat-like intensity, Roberta’s internal “rhythm section” does “make it work.”
“If you hear Chick Corea’s recordings of Litha from the late 1960’s,” Roberta notes, “and the way the tune shifts between meters, you would not consider Litha a natural candidate for a solo piano treatment. But playing tunes like ‘Litha’ and ‘Nefertiti,’ that are more familiar in a quintet framework, in a solo piano setting allowed me to approach them with a fresh ear.”
“Although Marian McPartland is primarily known as a great pianist, she is a remarkable and prolific composer,” Roberta comments. “In the Days of Our Love is a beautiful ballad with great changes. I performed it last year during my third appearance on her Piano Jazz radio program.” She states the theme in a rich rubato and breaks into a brisk tempo for her improvised solo, reprising the rubato at the close, a worthy and heartfelt tribute. “Marian has been a very good friend for many years,” she adds.” I recorded her ‘Threnody’ on my very first CD, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to record another one of her pieces.”
The easy swinger, Beatrice, is Roberta’s tribute to its composer, the late saxophonist Sam Rivers. “I attended a three-week artist residency that Sam led at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2005,” she recalls. “One night we played Beatrice together as a duo. A side benefit of getting to play this tune with Sam is that he showed me the right chord changes. Musically Sam was brilliant and he also had a brilliant mind, very intelligent and aware of the world around him. It was a deep experience and a great honor to be in Sam’s presence, even for that short time.” Her interpretation is relaxed, deliberate, and thoughtful — a delight from start to finish.
A charming personal story lies behind the CD’s final track, Improvisation Blue, by Roberta’s father, Frederick Piket. “My father was a well-respected classical and liturgical composer. His works were performed by the New York Philharmonic, among other orchestras. Recently I found this sheet music from the 1950’s hidden among some of his original scores. I had no idea that my father had ever written ‘popular songs’. Apparently he was trying — as most of us musicians do — to make a little more money, and he wrote some really good pop songs that were, in fact, published.” Not wanting to, in her words, “over-jazz it,” Roberta’s reverent one-chorus treatment never strays far from the simple, impeccably crafted melody.
“The thing about solo piano is,” Roberta reflects, looking back on this project, “it’s easy to work harder than you have to, or should. But if you play more simply and don’t worry about sounding like a whole band, the music will play itself.
“This was an eye-opening experience,” she concludes. “When you do something you haven’t done before, going thorough the process, you are inevitably soul-searching about what you’re trying to accomplish, what you want your ‘sound’ and your approach to be. There are so many options with the piano that I sometimes wondered if I was moving in the right direction. It was pretty intense.” An intense experience, perhaps, for the artist, but for the listener, an intensely rewarding one.
Bob Bernotas, New York
Jazz journalist-author-historian Bob Bernotas is the host of the weekly radio program, Just Jazz (www.wnti.org).