If drummers are the engines of jazz, then pianists are often its mapmakers. It’s not just that they’re the bandleaders and the composers; they’re also the content providers, the song finders, the place setters.
They’re the ones with the strongest chordal instruments, the most powerful harmony machines; they bring in the most outside materials and translate them into the language of their time and place. This is the tradition of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, John Lewis, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and more recently of Jason Moran and Robert Glasper and Vijay Iyer.
Lately I’ve been following four pianists who are making the jazz scene in New York more interesting. Hearing them in other people’s bands, and more recently in their own, I started to link them — maybe because they’ve all bloomed intensely over the last year or so, maybe because they can be difficult to figure out from a distance. They are all highly schooled and approach jazz sideways, using what they know and making it fit.
Next week the pianist Fabian Almazan, who is 27 and still unknown to most jazz listeners, will play his first headlining week at the Village Vanguard, opening the same day as the release of his first album, “Personalities.” He’s bringing a string quartet to play four pieces he’s arranged, as well as his trio, with the bassist Linda Oh and the drummer Henry Cole. That’s risky; it’s a lot at once. It’s not unlike him.
If I were to hear “Personalities” blindfolded, I might not know that Mr. Almazan was Cuban, except for one track: a version of “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” a nearly century-old danzón standard by the Cuban composer Antonio María Romeu. Otherwise there’s a version of the Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela’s “Bola de Nieve,” which in Mr. Almazan’s hands sounds as if it might have been written by Radiohead; a rearrangement of Shostakovich’s “String Quartet No. 10” for trio and string quartet with sounds altered by delay and distortion pedals; and his own music: pretty ballads, rapid and quickly turning pieces with rhythm and dynamics that could only come from this moment.
Mr. Almazan, placid and serious, immersed in sound, the kind of musician who’s more fascinated by text than context, was born in Havana, the son of the bass player Rafael Almazán. His family moved briefly to Mexico when he was 9, then sought political asylum in the United States, settling in Miami. In Mexico he started piano lessons, and in Miami his parents bought a piano.
He became aware of jazz in high school there, at the New World School of the Arts, where the drummer Obed Calvaire was also a student. “I remember walking by the room where he and some other musicians were playing, and I felt frustrated by classical music,” Mr. Almazan recalled this week. “If I felt a certain way, it couldn’t influence the way I played.” He graduated from the program as a classical pianist but had already changed over to jazz internally.
From there he attended the Brubeck Institute, an undergraduate program in California, and then the Manhattan School of Music, where he took orchestration classes and studied with Mr. Moran, who gave him new challenges, like remodeling Scott Joplin’s “Entertainer” in 45 minutes. The trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, whom he’d met in passing, recommended him to Terence Blanchard in 2007, and touring with Mr. Blanchard — one of the most important cultivators of young musicians in America — has transformed him as a performer. Mr. Blanchard is also a film composer, and Mr. Almazan is moving in that direction too; he recently completed a fellowship at the Sundance Composer’s Lab.
“I know there’s a lot of people who think that jazz is a community thing, and it keeps traditions going, and I understand that completely,” he said. “But for me it’s important not to feel like you’re doing it for someone else. So it’s selfish, but I’ve heard music that was created selfishly, and it created a big impact on me. It made my life better.”
Kris Davis’s style is dry and blunt and authoritative, and still changing. At 31 she’s worked in a circle of musicians including the saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ingrid Laubrock, the bassists John Hébert and Eivind Opsvik, and the drummer Jeff Davis, her former husband. Her playing uses space and tension and contrast; it always has an interior plan and doesn’t leap at you to show you how hip it is. It’s very open, but it comes with rules.
“A lot of times I’ll try to write as little as possible,” she told me. “I want to write things that guide musicians through a certain idea but not control what they’re actually doing. A lot of times I don’t have a specific way in mind that something should sound.”
Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, she’d studied classical music at the Royal Conservatory, but found out about jazz in high school. She got into it slowly, transcribing Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett and eventually studying it at the University of Toronto. And in general she has taken strong but measured steps since. You can hear her small-group conception really come together on “Good Citizen,” from 2010, and then become more abstract in her work with the remarkable trio Paradoxical Frog, with Ms. Laubrock and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey.
She heard free jazz pretty much for the first time around the age of 20 at the Banff International Jazz Workshop, where she met Mr. Malaby and his wife, the pianist Angelica Sanchez, who would later become important friends and collaborators. Moving to New York in 2001 she got up to speed very gradually; after her first album, “Lifespan,” she changed her style completely.
“I decided not to play chords anymore, just to play lines,” she said. “I started improvising that way. Those left-hand chords are such a jazz-piano sound; I didn’t want it to sound that way. So I rarely play chords, and I rarely double the bass line.”
More recently she completed a degree in classical composition from City College in New York.
Two years ago she toured Portugal playing solo concerts, then made a solo recording, “Aeriol Piano,” which has just come out on the Clean Feed label. It’s seriously good, a kind of logical crossing of Morton Feldman and Mr. Jarrett, with her own touch and strong sense of compositional organization framing the soloing. It includes a version of the standard “All the Things You Are”; she comes at it in her all-lines fashion, implying melody and harmony and finally making the tune clear at the end.
Matt Mitchell, 36, who has been playing a lot recently with Tim Berne, John Hollenbeck, Rudresh Mahanthappa and, increasingly, his own bands, grew up in Exton, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He took theory and jazz lessons from the age of 12 at a local university; like Ms. Davis, he inhaled Jarrett and Hancock, spending his weekends transcribing solos.
After finishing the master’s program at Eastman Conservatory in the late 1990s he moved to New York. He played sessions, dinner and wedding gigs, and other jobs one needs to survive, and then he left, returning to Philadelphia and burrowing into his own music. For nine years he kept a day job, working in a University of the Arts library, quitting only when he was getting more work as a pianist than he could handle — and his wife ordered him to.
This refusal to settle might say something about Mr. Mitchell’s identity as a composer — of extremely demanding music that not everybody can play — and as a kind of perfectionist, a creature of preparation.
Twelve years ago, while still in music school, he wrote to Mr. Berne in New York, asking for scores of two long pieces: “Impacted Wisdom” and “Eye Contact.” He left his phone number. Mr. Berne called him.
“For some reason I knew I had to respond,” Mr. Berne said. “I usually write the separate parts, and I have a rough score for myself that’s not really presentable. So I went nuts for a couple hours and put these things together. I felt obligated to do it, since there was someone out there crazy enough to want it.”
They never spoke again until 2008; Mr. Mitchell was working in New York but hadn’t contacted Mr. Berne. At the time Mr. Berne couldn’t understand this. He still can’t.
He didn’t know how to hustle then? “No!” Mr. Mitchell said, in a recent conversation. “No.No. I’m only just now getting a handle on that. That could be why I don’t have a record yet. Well, that’s not entirely why.”Another reason is that other people are suddenly wanting him around. Mr. Mitchell is a musician who, like Ms. Davis, feels close to the consensus language of straight-ahead jazz but wants to get beyond it. He does it with hands moving in independent parts, with polyrhythms, with music that approaches the technical level of études but that churns and whirls and leaves spaces for broad interpretation.
One of his inspirations has been Andrew Hill, whom he admires not just as a composer but as a pianist in the Thelonious Monk tradition. (As a teenager he paid close attention to Hill’s album “Point of Departure,” and a two-year-old Google Videos clip of Mr. Mitchell playing a solo version of Hill’s “Dedication” suggests many, many hours of preparation.) Another has been Iannis Xenakis, the electronic-music composer, whom he calls “one of the pre-eminent geniuses of the past hundred years.”
These days he’s writing for his own sextet called Central Chain, including Mr. Berne, and for a duo with the drummer Ches Smith. (He showed me a score for a new piece called “Yip Strophes”; it’s only a little longer than a page, but it’s built of 13 related pairs of melodic phrases, which the players can perform at the bandleader’s ordering or their own.) On Tuesday night at Korzo, in Brooklyn, he played his own new music with Mr. Berne and Mr. Smith.
“We did 20 hours of rehearsal, collectively, for that one night,” Mr. Berne said. “And this is a gig that costs more than it pays, but we approached it like it was Carnegie Hall.”
David Virelles, 27, arrived in New York in 2008 and seemed to go straight to the top of the class: playing gigs with Steve Coleman, Chris Potter and Mark Turner and generally making himself noticeable, breaking through with strong and hard-to-define patterns and sounds.
But his story has much in common with the others’. He grew up in Santiago, Cuba, and his father is the nueva-trova singer-songwriter José Aquiles. When he became interested in jazz, after an early childhood of arts-track education, he acquired cassette recordings through friends who were musicians, or sometimes his father, and found out about Bud Powell, Monk, and — like Mr. Mitchell — Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure.” In fairly quick succession, he saw Mr. Coleman performing on television at Havana’s jazz festival; he met the Canadian musician Jane Bunnett, who had come to Santiago to record; and he traveled to Toronto at her invitation, eventually attending the Banff workshop and the University of Toronto. (He arrived there just after Ms. Davis left.)
He attended the pianist Barry Harris’s workshops in Canada, learning secrets about phrasing and rhythm in bebop, and around 2006, while still in Canada, he sent an e-mail of musical questions to Mr. Coleman, saying he knew Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto, two other young Cuban musicians whom Mr. Coleman had worked with, and Mr. Coleman gave “very detailed answers.”
“From then on I started bugging him, asking him about music,” he said. “We’d have long conversations on the phone.”
“Information” is a word Mr. Virelles says often; “systems” is another. He is drawn to composers with systems, like Henry Threadgill, whose 2006 record “Everybody’s Mouth’s a Book” became an obsession.
“This guy’s got so many vocabularies,” he explained. “He’s working from experience. His system is a platform for him to play the way he wants to play. That had a huge impact on me.”
With a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts Mr. Virelles came to New York to study with him. Every week they would see a concert together and talk; eventually Mr. Virelles began transferring his scores to a computer-notation program. “I learned about all kinds of things,” he said, “orchestration, form, improvisation, timbre.”
Mr. Virelles has a new band, Continuum, with the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, the drummer Andrew Cyrille and sometimes the bassist Ben Street. It involves computer-generated rhythm, Yoruba traditions of rhythm and divination, and improvising. He’s using the band as a means for learning more about history, myth and technology — other systems, not just musical. He’s planning a three-week trip to Cuba’s southeast to do some cultural research and field recordings of local musicians.“I want to see how they arrange that information, and I want to see if I can get some of it in my music,” he said. “But I’m not talking about literally, taking those rhythms and working them into my compositions. I’m trying to learn the raw materials, how they put things together.”
A New York Times article