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The combination of great music, intelligent improvisation, and solid technique makes for exciting listening.

Music Review: John Roney – ‘Preludes’

The idea of jazz musicians taking on the classical music repertoire is neither particularly new, nor revolutionary. It has been done by ensembles and by individual artists. It has been done well. It has also left something to be desired, but when performed elegantly, the music can be something truly special.

Canadian piano virtuoso John Roney’s January live solo release Preludes is something special. The combination of great music, intelligent improvisation, and solid technique makes for exciting listening.

Credit photo: Pascal Milette
Credit photo: Pascal Milette

On the album’s 12 tracks, Roney takes the listener on a journey through a range of classical styles, from the baroque to the modern – from Bach to Ellington. He opens and closes with two Bach preludes from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.” The first one, which takes something under two minutes in straight performance, has Roney exploring for a bit over five.

The second one runs – and I mean runs – about a minute and a half straight; Roney’s treatment runs something over four. More importantly, while what he does with it by way of creative improvisation (especially some of the more modern jazz voicings) might stick in the craw of classical purists, I would hope a creative genius like a Bach might well look upon it differently.

Preludes is in effect an improvisational piano recital that emphasizes both the pianist’s skills and creativity. Each of the different classical styles gives him the opportunity to explore new territory.

Thus, his modernistic take on Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” is something quite different from what he does with the impressionist Claude Debussy’s “Prelude, Book 2, No.5: Bruyeres.” There, he captures the impressionistic essence of the composer. And when he tackles Chopin and Gershwin, he works well within their voices. His improvisations, distinctly modern at times, don’t seem alien to the spirit of the music.

The complete program includes three Gershwin pieces, two by Chopin, two Debussy, and two from Russian Alexander Scriabin.

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