Take Five International Piano May/June 2014

IP’s jazz columnist Graham Lock outlines key works from John Law’s discography

Take Five

1. Two, Part 1, from Extremely Quartet (hat Art)

2. Bemsha Swing 2, from The Oneliest (FMR)

3. The Ghost in the Oak, from The Ghost in the Oak (33 Records)

4. Chorale-reprise, from Chorale (33 Records)

5. Congregation, from Congregation (33 Records)

BEFORE HE DISCOVERED jazz back in the 1980s, John Law was living in Vienna, studying with Paul Badura-Skoda and pursuing a career as a classical pianist. What happened? ‘The short answer,’ he tells me, ‘is sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock ’n’ roll.’ Literally? ‘No, no. That’s just a phrase, shorthand for getting into different musics, different ways of life.’ In jazz, he says, he found ‘the energy, the groove’ he’d been looking for; he could still play piano, still compose – ‘and I could do the music of now.’

The first jazz album he bought was by Thelonious Monk – ‘like entering a new world,’ he later wrote – and soon he was listening to everyone from Oscar Peterson to Cecil Taylor. However, ‘very quickly, before I’d got a thorough grasp of the jazz repertoire, I somehow ended up in free improvisation, playing thrash music with wonderful musicians like Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Louis Moholo. I still love their music, though that’s clearly not what I’m doing now.’

Law, born in 1961, began playing piano at the age of four and studied at the Royal Academy of Music before moving to Vienna.

Back in London by the late 1980s, his immersion in free improv proved short-lived. After a few years, he says, he grew tired of the volume, the intensity and ‘coming away from the piano with bleeding fingers’. It wasn’t all like that: his duo with bassist Guy on the Extremely Quartet CD is neither loud nor bloody, but a mutually busy yet attentive dialogue – free playing with both focus and finesse.

Thelonious Monk’s compositions had continued to fascinate him, particularly their ‘strong melodies, with little hooks to work around’, and now they helped to rekindle his enthusiasm for melody and harmony. In 1995 Law’s partner, the visual artist Melanie Day, exhibited a series of Monk-inspired sculptures at London’s Vortex Club; at the opening, Law’s trio played their own versions of Monk’s music, and later recorded them on The Oneliest CD.

‘I didn’t really know how to play jazz then,’ Law remarks. ‘Technically, I could have been more proficient in the particularities of jazz style. Then again, what you think are your weaknesses can also be your strengths. They’re what make you idiosyncratic.’ Absolutely. The disc still sounds fresh because Law’s playing is so unpredictable – delightfully so on the two takes of Bemsha Swing. The first treats the tune as a gleeful round-cum-romp; the second is acutely inventive, as Law, unschooled in the fall-back formulae of ‘jazz style’, has to improvise from more personal, and creative, resources.

Later albums have mostly featured original compositions, though his classical roots keep reappearing in various guises, from a four-disc set of solo improvisations based on plainsong (Chants) to a jazz quartet version of a Baroque suite (Abacus). Then there’s Law’s fondness for the multi-layered piano parts that have been present in his music for over 20 years. ‘I hear music like that,’ he says, referring to counterpoint and polyphony; ‘I can almost see the parts happening at the same time, like a puzzle you try to solve.’

The best examples of this penchant for complexity can be found on The Art of Sound, a series of albums that also houses the best examples of Law’s complementary gift for simple, alluring melody. These four discs – two solo, two trio, recorded between 2006 and 2008 – are arguably Law’s finest to date, and confirmed his reputation as one of the UK’s most imaginative and versatile jazz pianists. He cites The Ghost in the Oak as the trickiest of his multi-layered pieces, and his solo version is technically impressive yet oddly plaintive, with Law astutely shading dynamics between the different voices to create a haunting, densely textured sound-world. In contrast, the solo Chorale-reprise has a spare simplicity, its hesitant beauty enhanced by Law’s rapt, lingering performance, before it segues into a gentle township swing.

There are also trio versions of Ghost and Chorale, though I prefer the solo’s tentative, more introspective probing. Several trio pieces do exert considerable melodic charm – Beguile, Song, Look into My Eyes – but my favourite trio performance is the rhythmic power-charge of Congregation, its manic staccato beat inspired, says Law, by the Bad Plus. ‘It’s physically demanding to play,’ he adds. ‘Asaf, my drummer, likened it to a power drill.’ To the listener, it’s a surge of elation, a joyful apotheosis, as Law gives new impetus to ‘the energy, the groove’ that had first spurred him to play jazz.