For his first album since 2003’s Smile, pianist Jacky Terrasson returns with heightened vitality on a superb solo outing, Mirror. The CD is a wide-ranging collection of re-envisioned standards, a jewel of a new standard and six song-like originals, all delivered with a spontaneous joie de vivre. His first solo project has been in a germination stage for several years, as he waited for the right time to undertake the daunting challenge of going it alone in the studio.
“I kept postponing working on a solo CD because I wasn’t ready to take it on,” says the New York-based Terrasson. “Recording solo in a studio is one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career. You’re in a room with no audience. It’s just you and the piano and the microphones. You have to do everything—provide the vibe, the tempos, the flow, the colors. You can’t help but get a little self-conscious. But when I felt ready, I thought, let’s just go.” He was joined by renowned sound engineer Joe Ferla, who, Terrasson says, “expressed some great intuitive ideas, such as how to position me in the studio so that I was able to be in my own little world.”
The two-day Mirror sessions resulted in a striking series of sonic snapshots capturing Terrasson doing what he does best: dipping into the emotion of the songs with a flair for dynamics—blowing with muscular intent then softening the attack with quiet grace as well as contrasting oblique jaunts with gorgeous lyricism. It’s the distinctive voice of the pianist who fully caught the jazz world’s attention in 1993 when he won the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. That immediately prompted The New York Times Magazine to peg him as one of 30 artists under the age of 30 most likely to make an impact on American culture in the future.
Terrasson signed with Blue Note and since 1994 has recorded ten critically acclaimed albums. During this period, The New York Times has hailed him as “reliably brilliant” and the International Herald Tribune has likewise praised him for his “purely personal concept of meter, not to mention his uncanny ability to go from pianissimo to fortissimo without stopping anywhere in between.”
Mirror is not quiet, dinner-jazz music. Indeed, it’s exclamatory, swinging, stormy, playful, angular and straight-ahead with plenty of twists. In lieu of showcasing nonstop his velocity and fire on the keys, Terrasson chose to “give themes different spices.” While some tunes are all about gleeful ebullience (case in point: the bop standard “Cherokee,” in 7/4, which is delivered, he says, “just for fun, just for the blowing”), most capture Terrasson’s intimacy with melody while also taking liberties with harmony and rhythm.
The lead-off tune, “Caravan,” also in 7/4, opens with turbulence before settling into its lyrical essence, albeit with chordal bursts and fractures. “Anytime I play a standard, I can’t help giving the song a twist,” says Terrasson, who cites influences such as Lennie Tristano and Paul Bley for their remarkable phrasing. “A standard is like an anchor as well as a vehicle with which you can truly express yourself. I love improvising on the structure, to disassemble a tune and then put it back together. When I play, I’m looking to find funny corners and different angles of phrasing.”
Terrasson also deconstructs “America the Beautiful” by gently playing it straight, then obliquely turning the melody and rhythm topsy-turvy. “There’s a feeling of collapse in this,” he says, “with a hopeful end when the melody returns intact.”
Terrasson also plays a moving rendition of “Everything Happens to Me,” citing Chet Baker’s take on the tune as an early inspiration, and a sprightly yet dissonant cruise through “Just a Gigolo,” which Thelonious Monk also rendered in a solo setting. ”Monk is a big influence,” says Terrasson. “I love his music—the individuality, his boldness, his less-is-more approach. In performing ’Just A Gigolo’ I was more interested in capturing those elements of Monk within the melody alone and less concerned with improvising.”
One of the highlight moments of Mirror is Terrasson’s minor-key take on Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” which takes such lyrics as “When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand” to heart. “I know this song through James Taylor,” he says, “who I only just discovered four years ago. I grew up in Europe and I was into the classical thing, then bebop, and was blind to most everything else. I heard this song on the radio and loved it. I asked friends if they had ever heard it, and they said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ For me, it’s a door to new repertoire.”
Terrasson’s originals are equally as captivating. The slow-swinging and sweet “Juvenile” is one of the first songs he wrote back in 1984. He says, “I never recorded it. I like the waltz theme and the melody. It shows my romantic side.” The dramatic and turmoiled “Little Red Ribbon,” which he has recorded before (on What It Is), was written for a friend who died of AIDS. “I was sad and frustrated at the time I wrote this,” Terrasson says. “Why hadn’t scientists found a vaccine for AIDS? All we have is a little red ribbon.”
One of the most poignant pieces on Mirror is “Tragic Mulatto Blues,” a blues in E-flat that hints of Terrasson’s classical training. He plays it with an angelic right hand and a gritty left, with stretches of call-and-response. It’s a song about his mixed heritage—his father is French; his mother African American. “It’s about searching for my identity. There was a pressure to have to belong somewhere. Others wanted me to make a choice between my different cultures and this song reminds me of how I was feeling during my teens and twenties,” he explains.
Mirror closes with the exuberant title track, which Terrasson says reflects the anguish, excitement and stress of recording a solo piano album, and “Go Round,” which is part gentle muse and playful dance.
As a recording, Mirror clearly stands as a milestone in Terrasson’s oeuvre. However, the process of making a solo piano record, and rising to meet its inherent challenges, has also reinvigorated his passion for solo piano and the possibilities that it holds for the future. “I love doing solo concerts and I’m excited and curious to hear how this music will evolve on the road.