In the liner notes to the Billy Lester solo piano album Storytime, the pianist’s son notes that his father has “always been a musical story teller.” He goes on to explain: “Billy Lester’s improvisations are uniquely personal, turning familiar songs and chord progressions into entirely individual inventions, or what could be described as musical story telling.” Now while I am not quite sure that this sort of personal improvisation is something I would equate with anything that I would call story telling, the idea that a musician can string together a pattern of abstract sounds and turn them into some sort of narrative structure is neither new nor original.
Classical composers have tried their hand at it. One thinks of a work like Strauss’s “The Merry Pranks of Till Eulenspiegel.” And with works like Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, jazz artists have not been far behind. Still, without the titles and the narrative lines attached to them, I have to wonder how much actual story telling comes from the music itself. In a sense the story is in the apparatus attached to the music, rather than in the music. Story telling in this context becomes a metaphor for the way the musician wants his audience to think about what it hears.
So for example, when Lester calls one of the pieces on his album “Lullaby,” it is clear that the listener is being nudged to think about the music in a certain way, a way quite different from the way he might think about a piece called “Dark Streets.” Switch the titles and I suspect the responses would be quite different. There are 11 tracks on the album which runs for a bit over 50 minutes. It opens with a lengthy “Prologue,” which with its atonal beginning provides an accurate indication of both the difficulties and the beauties to come.
That said, if I don’t quite buy into the story telling conceit informing the album, I have to acknowledge that Billy Lester is one fine pianist. His music is intelligent and cerebral, and played with consummate skill. Original compositions referencing musical influences like Bud Powell and Sal Mosca (called Lester’s mentor in the liner notes) give some indication of the pianist’s aesthetic. This is not music for the mass audience. In a note from Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, the album is called “connoisseur jazz.” It is truly an apt description. It is demanding music that will not be to the taste of all, those one poet called the “fit … though few.”