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Earlier this year, Koch Records reissued a 1958 recording of pianist Dave McKenna leading a trio, long the most common setting for jazz pianists. But hearing McKenna in this context was shocking–because for the last two decades he has performed and recorded almost exclusively unaccompanied. During that time he has earned plaudits, especially from fellow musicians, as the sine qua non of two-fisted pianistics: no matter how many piano improvisers you’ve heard, McKenna’s interlocking harmonies and clockwork swing lead you to think, “Oh, that’s how the thing should be played!” McKenna’s strengths lie in the elevation of familiar skills. In his arrangements he calls for the same two-part inventions or full-chorded choruses as most solo pianists, and he takes a classic approach to improvisational form and to the interplay between his left and right hands. But in giving perfect voice to these qualities, McKenna sums up an entire tradition, in much the way Bach has come to represent the Baroque. His command of the instrument verges on symbiosis, as if he were half man, half Steinway–perfect for when they get around to filming Dr. Moreau: The Musical. When you focus on McKenna’s powerful left hand, you get an inkling as to why he usually plays solo: few bassists could surpass his rock-steady low-register lines; and when that same left hand sets and maintains a hefty stride pattern, it becomes perhaps one-third of a decent drum kit as well. My only complaint stems from the uniformity with which McKenna churns out one credibly conceived miniature after another. On his last Chicago visit, in an unappetizing hotel banquet room, he played perhaps 20 tunes in a set uninterrupted by announcements or even a moment to stretch his fingers, and the accumulation of undifferentiated details eventually flattened the music. The intimacy that a tiny nightclub will provide for McKenna’s first “extended engagement” in years will hopefully make the difference. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, Toulouse Cognac Bar, 2140 N. Lincoln Park West; 665-9071.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dave McKenna photo.