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Paul Grabowsky: Solo Piano

A rare and virtuosic solo recital
Woodend Winter Arts Festival
by
ABR Arts 11 June 2024

Paul Grabowsky: Solo Piano

A rare and virtuosic solo recital
Woodend Winter Arts Festival
by
ABR Arts 11 June 2024
Paul Grabowsky (© Paul Grabowsky)
Paul Grabowsky (© Paul Grabowsky)

I recall the first time I saw pianist Paul Grabowsky play. The occasion was the launch of his debut album Six by Three, recorded with his then trio of bassist Gary Costello and drummer Allan Browne. The recital took place on a Sunday afternoon, in 1989, if memory serves, in a downstairs gallery in Flinders Lane. Despite an already well-honed interest in jazz, I was there only because a casual acquaintance – sculptor Victor Meertens – was showing new work from his Angels of Mons series. If I tagged along that day knowing little about Paul Grabowsky, I came away a lifelong admirer; though, back then, I suspect few of us could have foreseen the stellar career that lay ahead of him.

It represents something of a coup for the Woodend Winter Arts Festival to snare Grabowsky for a solo concert in St Ambrose Hall. Even though I can profess to having seen him countless times over the past decades, this was, astonishingly, my first opportunity to hear him play solo. Grabowsky rarely gives solo recitals. Even amongst his extensive discography, there exists just one solo recording, issued by ABC Jazz, simply titled Solo (2014).

It was music from that album that Grabowsky featured at his Woodend performance, a program made up mostly of originals, coupled with several standards. He opened with ‘Angel’, a composition dating back to the early 1990s, inspired by his first-born daughter Isabella, who, as a child, routinely took up residence beneath his piano. It is a piece that shows off Grabowsky’s many strengths: sustained melodicism, lyrical flights, a deeply felt affinity for storytelling. Bathed in fragile quietude, its measured tempo seemed spun from isolated notes – played with exceptional clarity – that appeared to hover and float dreamily, redolent with yearning.

It was followed by ‘October’, a piece drawn from a suite of twelve compositions corresponding to the months of the year, recorded for the Hush Music Foundation in 2005.  Fashioned from the simplest of motifs, this rendering manifested a lush romanticism. While originally composed with the intent of inducing calm, it felt as if the sombre, pensive melody could easily double as a noir soundtrack, conjuring shadowy streets, a doomed love affair.

It says much about Thelonius Monk’s distinctive genius that musicians continue to find new ways to interpret his best-known composition, ‘Round Midnight’. Grabowsky’s rendering relaxed the pace of Monk’s original 1947 recording, further adding to it a wafer-thin veneer of melancholy. The resulting mood was closer in alignment to the Miles Davis classic version, with Grabowsky’s piano assuming the role of Davis’s Harmon mute trumpet. Grabowsky’s reading emphasised silence and stillness, his hands lightly touching the keys, employing solitary notes, sparse sounds to delicately trace the bare bones of Monk’s composition.

The furiously paced ‘Cole for Cook’, which saw Grabowsky shifting gears, was a highlight. Composed in the 1980s – and comprising three distinct sections – it was named for American saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trombonist Marty Cook, who first introduced Grabowsky to Coleman’s music. Purposely bold and brash, it was cobbled from tumultuous flurries and rumbling chords, interspersed with delicate interludes. Adopting a devil-may-care approach, Grabowsky mashed scraps of Coleman’s off-kilter melodies, stride piano, and occasional atonality, fusing these disparate elements into a genuine tour de force. Lurking there in the mix was the free-wheeling spirit of pianist Lennie Tristano, whose harmonic language could be heard in Grabowsky’s muscular left-handed bass lines, over which he improvised freely.

Contrary to the advertised program – and Grabowsky joked that as an improvising artist he has rarely been asked to provide one – he inserted a recent piece, ‘Ella’, composed for a Gerhard Richter retrospective, held at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2017-18. Named for the painter’s daughter, and inspired by Richter’s portrait of her, the piece represents part of a larger commissioned suite, The Richter Songs, created in collaboration with singer-songwriter Megan Washington.

Grabowsky finished his performance with a heartfelt take on Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’, demonstrating his capacity to breathe new life into an old chestnut. While Carmichael’s classic can teeter toward hokeyness, Grabowsky’s stripped-back rendition teased out the song’s deep well of longing and loneliness. As with ‘Round Midnight’, he demonstrated a striking capacity for getting inside a song’s essence.  

James Brown famously quipped ‘Kill em’ and leave.’ The extended ovation that greeted Grabowsky at the end of this sold-out performance was genuine and whole-hearted. He could so easily, at that point, have taken a leaf out of Brown’s book, but instead returned for a brief encore, playing ‘Stars Apart’, a composition first recorded with his trio for the album When Words Fail (1995). With its introspective, drawn-out melody, suggestive of Debussy, it provided a perfect full stop to the evening.

While Grabowsky’s performance leaned heavily on composition, his skill as an improvisor was on show throughout, often via extended codas, which saw him departing from the melody line to formulate new patterns and variations.

Given that Grabowsky’s career spans many decades, it is tempting to argue that, like Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes. His career has encompassed jazz, soundtracks, opera, symphony, commissioned works, academic posts. He has been the recipient of seven ARIA awards, and has performed and collaborated with countless other artists, from Bernie McGann and Shelley Scown, to Archie Roach and Paul Kelly. A former Artistic Director of the Queensland Music Festival and the Adelaide Festival of Arts, he founded the Australian Art Orchestra, steering it for nearly two decades. Yet, despite the sheer scale of these accomplishments, it was the simple, unadorned intimacy of this performance that dazzled. Fusing artistry with virtuosity, and graced by an unexpected generosity and humility, it was an experience that few in the audience can have come away from other than uplifted.


 

Paul Grabowsky: Solo Piano (Woodend Winter Arts Festival) was at St Ambrose Hall, Woodend on 8 June 2024.

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