Piano journeys

Francesca Tanksley

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 5, 2003) – For most of her career, Francesca Tanksley used her musical talents in the service of other bandleaders – most notably saxophonist Billy Harper, with whom Tanksley has been associated for 20 years. But last year, the Woodstock-based pianist finally laid claim to the spotlight with her own recording, “Journey” (Dream Caller), featuring her trio performing nine of her original compositions – all of which are beautifully melodic yet full of surprising twists and turns.

“Journey” is an apt title for a recording by Tanksley, who performs with her trio on Saturday night at the Castle Street Café. With Harper and other bandleaders, including Erica Lindsay, Howard Johnson, David Newman, Cecil Payne, Nick Brignola, Slide Hampton, Sheila Jordan and Clifford Jordan, Tanksley has performed throughout Asia, Scandinavia and South America as well as the U.S. She frequently returns to her birthplace in Europe – she was born in Italy and raised in Munich – and in just a few weeks she heads to Israel to perform at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival with the Harper Quintet.

Tanksley’s journey, however, isn’t just about geography. On “Journey,” it’s a musical one that fuses mainstream, straight-ahead values like melody and swing with an original character. She attacks “Into the Light,” which opens the recording in a burst of free-form swing, with a forceful dynamism that has garnered her comparisons to McCoy Tyner. Funky modulations spirit “Dance in the Question” along, while “Simple Heart” mines a bluesy modality.

“Journey” is a trio recording, however, and for all the beauty and intrigue of Tanksley’s playing it’s easy to overlook the contributions of bassist Clarence Seay and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. The players are telepathically sympathetic, with Seay’s bass gingerly dancing through Tanksley’s delicate latticework on “In Grace,” and Baker’s accents highlighting the twists and turns of her acrobatic, bebop lines on “Trickster.”

Tanksley left Germany at age 16 to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied piano and composition. She moved to New York in 1980 to work with Melba Liston, and three years later she signed on with Harper. She has appeared on Marian McPartland’s public radio series, “Piano Jazz,” and appears in the documentary, “Women in Jazz,” by Burrill Crohn. Tanksley conducts jazz workshops at numerous colleges, and she is on the faculty at the New School in New York.

Phillip Johnston

Since its inception four years ago, one of Mass MoCA’s most popular, ongoing series of programs has been its screenings of classic silent films with new scores performed live by the composer/musicians. Phillip Johnston is one of the pioneers of the genre, and back in August, 1999, he performed his score for Todd Browning’s freakish, 1927 silent film, “The Unknown.”

Johnston is back at MoCA on Friday at 8 with a new score for F.W. Murnau’s 1926 German expressionist classic, “Faust.” This time out, he’ll be trying something new – his score includes original songs he composed with lyrics by his wife, playwright Hilary Bell. Vocalist Kate Sullivan, who is fluent in everything from Cole Porter to Bizet, will be joined by master accordionist Guy Klucevsek and cellist Tomas Ulrich as well as Johnston on a variety of saxophones, piano and ukulele.

“The film is one of Murnau’s most powerful and -- in this country -- least seen,” said Johnston earlier this week. “The film ranges from low comedy to the most moving tragedy, and it’s a profound indictment of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ which is as relevant today as ever.”

Of his decision to introduce the element of song to the score, Johnston explained, “Silent film has always struck me as being very much akin to traditional Western opera, with its heightened emotions and its stylized acting. But to make the film into an opera by setting the words of the title cards seemed corny. So I decided to write new songs and let the words become a fourth level of narrative.”

As the leader of groups including the Microscopic Septet, Big Trouble and the Transparent Quartet, and in collaboration with a host of like-minded artists and musicians, including John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Wayne Horvitz, Shelley Hirsch and Pat Irwin, Johnston has labored for two decades in what he describes as “the fringe of the downtown” -- that nebulous artistic territory off the popular radar, away from corporate sponsorship, outside of genre and sometimes even eluding conventional form, where contemporary artists patch together careers of visionary work through sweat, tears and the occasional foundation grant.

Johnston’s work is characterized by its willful perversity – its utter unwillingness to stay in one place, its defiance of genre, its universal embrace of the offbeat, its celebration of the quirky, dramatic and surprising gesture. His scores flow seamlessly from cocktail jazz to horn-laced funk grooves to acoustic chamber music to synthesized electronics to frenzied post-bop to banjo bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll to ersatz klezmer to cartoon music to skronking metal to Asian harp to blues guitar riffs to blowzy polka and back to classically-styled, string quartet music.

“I score silent films because I love them, not out of a wish to subvert or undermine them,” said Johnston. “Yet I feel that the art of film scoring, silent or talkie, must continue to evolve to stay fresh and vital. In both Hollywood films and so-called ‘independent films,’ the basic aesthetic and practical approach to film scoring, with a few exceptions, has not changed much in its one-hundred year history.”

Musical mothers

It’s the weekend of the musical mothers at Club Helsinki, beginning on Friday when Boston-based singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord performs. Lord started out busking in Boston subways in the early 1990s – “I missed out on a lot of what people in their twenties normally do because I was standing in a goddamn subway every Saturday night,” she once wrote -- but her career got a shot in the arm with the 1998 release of her major-label debut, “Got No Shadow” (Work/Columbia). Shortly afterward, Lord took time off from performing after the birth of her daughter. She recently brought things full circle with “Live City Sounds,” a 16-song collection of cover tunes by the likes of Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Shawn Colvin, recorded in Boston subway stations.

Former Deep Banana Blackout vocalist Jen Durkin has a new band – the horn-heavy, funky Bomb Squad, which performs at Helsinki on Saturday night -- and a new baby, Cheyenne Rose, born last November. With DBB, Durkin shared stages with the likes of Maceo Parker and Bernie Worrell, and as heard on the group’s CD, “SophistaFunk,” their influence, and that of Earth, Wind and Fire, is strongly felt in the Bomb Squad’s good-time, funky party music blended with jazz – several of the musicians attended Berklee.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 7, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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