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Classical and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl was the featured artist in the most recent Music for a Great Space "Season Anew" concert on Friday, October 22. Diehl was trained at the Juilliard school and was the American Pianist Association's 2011 Cole Porter fellow. He has three "critically acclaimed leader albums;" a fourth is on its way. The first half of the performance presented classical literature, while in the second half, Diehl was joined by local jazz talents Chad Eby (tenor sax), Steve Haines (double bass), and Thomas Taylor (drums), all three professors at UNC-G as well as active performers.
The opening Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 860 by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) highlighted Diehl's nimble fingers. The opening was fast and energetic with nicely shaped phrasing. In the Fugue, which was also played at a good clip, the pianist brought out some interesting voices, perhaps different from what other musicians might choose.
The rest of the classical portion showcased music by African-American composers. First up were several elections by Roland Hanna (1932-2002) starting with the first three Preludes from his Op. 21 collection. The first, in B-flat, features passages with flourishes (including glissandos) surrounding more chordal, hymn-like passages.
The Prelude in E was more relaxed, and Diehl brought out the beautiful melodies accompanied by jazz-infused chords. Prelude in B minor, featuring undulating accompaniment, was affirmatively played. Diehl clearly delineated the different sections in the final piece, "Century Rag." The work features the trademark stride piano in the left hand, gently played.
Two works by Scott Joplin, "Easy Winners" and "Solace (A Mexican Serenade)" followed. The first is a relaxed work, which Diehl played elegantly, bringing out the music's lyrical qualities and taking lots of time between sections. The second was also gentle, and again highlighted the pianist's tender playing.
A word about the acoustics in CUMC – for some music events, they are terrific, especially for choral singing, not to mention the marvelous Fiske organ that resides in the sanctuary (more about that later). But for speaking, even with the speaker using a microphone, it is sometimes difficult to clearly hear what is being said. I say this because I'm unsure of some of the titles and or composers of the rest of the evening.
Immediately after the Joplin pieces, Diehl launched into a couple of pieces that weren't on the printed program. First was an energetic performance of "Keep off the Grass" by James P. Johnson . Nimble fingers, again, were on display!
"New World A-Comin'" by Duke Ellington was a study in textures through multitudinous sections, each with a different character including gentle, whimsical, blues-influenced, rhapsodic, and virtuosic. Diehl's playing was masterful and gave us an inside look at a great Ellington piano piece. "Juba Dance" by R. Nathaniel Dett was upbeat and provided the opportunity for the pianist to display his facile technique. Non-stop energy characterized this offering.
An "encore" ended the first half: "Adoration," originally written for organ by Florence Price. Diehl moved to the organ to wow the large audience with this hymn-like piece that reminds one that Price had a degree in organ and sometimes supplemented her income by playing organ for silent films.
The jazz quartet came to the stage after intermission and kicked off the second half with a peppy rendition of "Deception" by Miles Davis (1926-91) arranged by Gerry Mulligan (1927-96). The ballad "Isfahan" by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (1915-67) began with an extended intro by Haines and featured Taylor using brushes, sometimes difficult to hear as prominently as deserved.
"Flux Capacitor" by Diehl (b. 1985) put the composer back on the organ after he played a piano introduction. Eby's solid sax playing was at the forefront, and Taylor returned to sticks for a straight bebop take. Diehl remarked that was the first time he had played jazz on a pipe organ.
The concert ended with fine performances of the waltz-like "Clockwise" by Cedar Walton (1934-2013), "Stablemates" by Benny Golson (b. 1929) and the blues, "Centerpiece" by Harry Edison (1915-99). Throughout, Eby's calm nature belied his energetic and brilliant sax playing. Taylor's demeanor was also a bit cool but his several moments in the solos displayed his incredibly creative talent. Haines' bass playing was the opposite: extremely extroverted, with his body always in motion whether laying down a rock-solid foundation or taking the lead in a moment in the spotlight. It seems clear that these three play together with some frequency.
The combination of classical music and jazz that Diehl brought not only showed a blurred line between two, but also resulted in one of the most, if not the most, diverse audiences I have ever witnessed at a Music for a Great Space concert. Congrats on a winning program.