• Courtesy the artist
  • Mikel Patrick Avery

Mikel Patrick Avery is one of Chicago’s more talented and curious jazz percussionists, a musician who frequently departs from his mainstream foundations to participate in all kinds of unusual projects—whether playing the homemade instruments built by repurposing carpenter and sculptor John Preus or contributing to the single-chord drones of Joshua Abrams’s Natural Information Society. One of his most interesting and entertaining projects emerged earlier this year—something he calls “Music for ½ Size Piano.” Avery obtained a 1930s 44-key piano—an instrument that functions like a conventional piano but possesses half the notes and range. ( Still produced today, the instrument is ideal for children learning piano or for those without the room to house a regular model.)

Avery wrote a handful of tunes for the instrument and recorded trio versions of the pieces with bassist John Sutton and four diverse keyboardists—Ben Paterson, Chris White, Jeremy Khan, and Alexis Lanier, one for each piece. He produced video clips for each of the pieces with a humorous introduction where he describes his methodology in inviting skilled pianists over to his apartment to record the compositions: “These are highly talented people playing a somewhat untalented instrument.” The truncated range of the keys limits the players’ sonic palette, but they all deliver spirited, entertaining performances. As you can see below on the video for “Neighbors,” a vaguely boogie-woogie-flavored tune played by Paterson, Avery limits himself too, using only a set of brushes on a single ride cymbal and a cardboard box. All four tunes are briskly, melodic, and simple, with a tartness that recalls Thelonious Monk.

The four tracks are available digitally, but Avery also released them a few months ago on a format as quasi-irrelevant as a 44-key piano: the flexidisc. At the bottom of the sleeve a note reads “Recorded in MONO, on one-fourth inch tape for inferior quality.”

Avery will play this music tonight at the Charleston for the latest installment of the monthly Ratchet Series. He’ll be joined by Sutton and Detroit pianist Matt Jellick. Ken Vandermark will DJ before, between, and after each set.

Today’s playlist:

Scot Ray Quintet, Active Vapor Recovery (Cryptogramophone)
Sebastian Lexer & Christoph Schiller, Luftwurzein (Matchless)
Ensemble El-Moukhadrami, Songs of the Griots (Institut du Monde Arabe)
Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound X, El Progreso (Fania)
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold (Signature Sounds)