Carmen Staaf’s Album “Reflection”

15 Apr

carmenstaafSometimes I think it’s just nuts how many amazing musicians I know. For real – it’s nuts. At any given moment in time, there are at least four or five albums that require my attention, released by various players I went to school with or have played alongside in SF. They’re all off the beaten path, ranging in genre from modern jazz to Baltic improvisation to dream-pop to hard rock. And to a one, they are all really, really good.

So, I decided that I’d take the opportunity to write a bit about some of them, to try to put into words just what I like about each album so much. My intention is not to post criticism or reviews, just to share a bit about some of my friends and the music they make.

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I’ve been meaning to write about pianist Carmen Staaf’s new album, “Reflection,” for quite some time. I know Carmen through my friend Dana Sandler, a vocalist who went to UMiami with me. Dana and Carmen met in Boston while we were all still in Undergrad and formed a fast friendship – after that, Dana spent a good amount of time on campus talking her up. We heard a lot about this new, amazing piano player, and by the time we actually heard her play, we had pretty high expectations.

And damn, girl did not disappoint. Carmen came down to Miami to play on Dana’s senior recital, and she blew everyone away. She took a very different approach to the instrument than anyone at UM – I remember being really used to the big dogs on campus at the time, the amazing Joe Davidian and Phil Strange, and hearing Carmen play was a cool change. She had a marvelous fluidity on the instrument, and even then (about seven years ago now), her voice as an improviser was really assured. Really, I’m in no way qualified to talk about how “good” Carmen is or was, but I know that if I had had to go from Miami to another top jazz school and play on my friend’s recital, I’d been majorly feeling the pressure. Carmen, at least judging by how I remember her playing, didn’t let our jazz-nazi ears and attentions phase her in the slightest.

Okay, so, enough with the ancient history. On to the album. It is good. Really, really good. You should buy it. Reflection is brimming with incredible musicianship, clarity of artistic vision and intent, and an incredible level of compositional ambition that is, amazingly, actually realized in the songs’ performances. It is an album both intimate and grand, and its programmatic concept is put together really well.

Back a while ago, when I was finishing up “The Exited Door,” I wrote a bit about albums as an artistic format, and how they’re not going anywhere.  In the post, I talked a bit about a certain unnamed pianist friend of mine, and how she had been obsessing over the gaps between songs, as well as the song order, to an almost unhealthy degree. So, yeah, Carmen saw that and totally knew that I was talking about her – busted!  But man, I just totally identify that level of detail-obsession, and with how much thought she put into the flow of the album, and the result, in the case of “Reflection,” is a record that never sags or loses your attention.

And that’s really saying something. This album has some really epic stuff on it, but each one is balanced expertly with a shorter, more immediate tune.  For every ten-minute-long, multi-part mindblower like “Hole in the Sky,” there’s either an interlude (like, well, “Interlude”), or a more straight-ahead tune like “Dog Park.”

Khevre

Khevre.

And can I say something about “Dog Park?”  I fricking love this tune. So much. Carmen’s a great accordionist (among other places, her work is featured prominently with the super cool jazz-klezmer group Khevre), and “Dog Park” is a great feature for her accordion playing.  Additionally, it’s got a super fun melody, and I have realized that I made up my own words:

“Dog Park, Dog Park.
We’re in the park.

Where we walk our dooooooggggs…
while we’re wearing clooooogggs…”

The tune also features an absolutely ridiculous bass clarinet solo by Brian Landrus, which actually brings me to another thing about this record – the  burning personnel.  Austin McMahon is on drums, which is cool – as I mentioned in my writeup of his record, their albums feel a bit similar, spiritually (that’s a really good thing). Dana also sings and sounds really cool, adding an interesting amount of weirdness to the angular, poetry-as-lyrics vocal sections of “Reflection.”  But when I first heard the record, I already knew that Dana and Austin were good, since I went to school with them.  The other players – Landrus, Jorge Roeder on bass, and Daniel Blake on saxes, are, to a man, just sick players.  They’ve tackled some really tough material here, and  they absolutely kill on it.

I guess I’d be remiss not to talk about Carmen’s playing, though I hesitate for fear that I can’t come up with metaphors that could even scratch the surface of her style.  My impressions of Carmen’s performance at Dana’s recital are but a hazy memory from college, but after sitting with “Reflection” for a lot of listens, I’ve had a chance to form a mental picture of her piano playing. I’m hard-pressed to write about it really, for fear of coming off like some hack music critic, but… Carmen is just so, so assured on the piano, so bold and fluid, it’s inspiring to me as a musician.  Her compositions come off like improvisations – just take a listen to the first tune, “Little Dance,” a melody that twists down the keyboard, metrically modulating in a perfectly logical, simple way… it’s so tossed-off sounding, so casual and yet deliberate?  I don’t know.  Dancing about architecture, and all that.  If you want to get a feel for what I’m talking about, listen to her solo take on Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.”  It says more than I ever could.

To sum up – buy this record.  If you live in Boston or NY, check out Carmen’s site and go see her play live!  It seems like a lot of people I know have felt the need lately to vent frustrations about the state of the American music scene, and the dearth of exciting new music.  If you have read this post and didn’t order “Reflection,” (even after the forty or so times I linked to it), you officially have no further cause to complain about music, ever. Albums like this (and players like Carmen) don’t come along that often, and you owe it to yourself to get a copy, turn up the volume, and broadcast her wonderful notes into the universe.

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One Response to “Carmen Staaf’s Album “Reflection””

  1. Joel April 15, 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    I live in Boston and I go to every Carmen performance here. She lives in Brooklyn now so the opportunities are all too rare. Not too long ago I found out that she was going to substitute for Victor Mendoza’s regular piano player in a concert featuring the visiting bass legend, Eddie Gomez.

    She sounded like she had been playing Victor’s music with Eddie Gomez forever!! The other players who were all really accomplished broke into big smiles every time she had a solo.

    I heard her more recently in Ayn Inserto’s big band and the first tune featured Carmen and Austin McMahon (drums) alone. This band features the famous George Garzone and a stage full of great players. Carmen and Austin both somehow stood out even though everything they play is always serving the composer’s intent.

    I heard the REFLECTION concert right before the album was recorded and it changed me for the better.

    In summary,go hear Carmen if you can (myspace.com/carmenstaaf has her schedule) and of course get the REFLECTION cd as well as Austin’s MANY MUSES. Both of these albums are classics and will reward repeated listening.

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