Jacky Terrason

Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase

February 3-5

On the cold first weekend in February, Jacky Terrasson–a hot pianist, with a hot new album, riding a wave of superheated publicity–arrived at the Jazz Showcase for his official Chicago unveiling. He brought with him a valise full of technique, a flair for rhythmically inventive arrangements, and a highly dramatic approach to structuring improvisations; he also brought the other members of his lean and wiry trio, most notably the percussionist Leon Parker, whose minimalist approach to the drum kit has gained almost as much attention as Terrasson’s own playing. They left behind appreciation but also disappointment–which may say as much about the demands of runaway hype as it does about the trio’s skill and approach.

(This did not constitute Terrasson’s Chicago debut, by the way. Several years ago he left the Berklee School of Music in Boston–where he had come to study from his hometown Paris–and moved here on the advice of Chicago bassist Dennis Carroll, whom he’d known at Berklee. Then in his mid-20s, the pianist spent the next ten months or so playing with Carroll at Blondie’s–an unlikely jazz cellar on Rush Street–and, in his own words, getting to learn music “three times faster than in class, since I was on the spot onstage all the time.”)

To merely say that Terrasson’s reputation preceded him would be to greatly understate the case. Ever since he walked away with the blue ribbon at the 1993 piano competition sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Terrasson has occupied an increasingly bright center-stage spot. Critics on both coasts have raved about his sparkling work with Betty Carter; some have also heaped garlands (inexplicably) on a poorly produced quartet date under his own name for the French label Jazz aux Remparts. He reputedly received an enormous bonus for signing a contract with Blue Note Records, which capped a bidding war among several labels. And at the end of 1994 the New York Times labeled Terrasson one of 30 artists under 30 who were most likely to change the arts as the century plays itself out.

Well, no one said it would be easy. Terrasson’s style has many wonderful features. He plays with a sure and unwavering attack, and an especially authoritative command of its range and nuances: these qualities allow him to pack his playing with hairpin tempo changes and breathtaking swoops and plunges in dynamics. He has a spectacularly quick wit, which allows him to oppose a sudden surprising bebop quote against an odd chord or pedal drone, and a deep blues feel–deep enough to insinuate a convincing blues phrase into so unlikely a setting as “My Funny Valentine.” His touch, his time, and his mercurial solos recall the music of Keith Jarrett, and so does his penchant for imparting memorable new life to old standards. Terrasson’s arrangements turn each song into a playlet, reshaping it for dramatic effect, in much the way that the great singers can turn a well-known song into a newly affecting story. It’s a technique popularized by Wynton Marsalis’s playing, who also draws on his learning to twist and squeeze the music in unexpected and theatrical directions; but Terrasson does it on a more intimate scale.

You can hear this best on Terrasson’s signature tune, the Cole Porter classic “I Love Paris” that leads off his eponymous album. With stark left-hand chords and a modified funk beat that manages to encompass African drumming and even a hint of cha-cha, Terrasson repaints the town entirely, not just rhythmically but also emotionally, bridging major and minor keys in a way that vividly recolors the music. The arrangement, with its clearly defined mileposts, leaves room for the pianist to improvise in explosive bursts or to draw out a snippet of melody, but the arrangement always reins him back in. Both propulsive and restrictive, it has much in common with the highly stylized arrangements that Ahmad Jamal made famous with his trio, starting in the mid-50s and continuing to this day–arrangements that function like a big-band chart, containing and supporting the improvised solo rather than springing it loose.

Terrasson’s arrangements draw heavily on the remarkable vision of Leon Parker, who seems guided by both Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum (“Less is more”) and the title of a Billie Holiday song (“Trav’lin’ Light”). As with most drummers, Parker uses one bass drum; as with no other drummers, the bass drum occupies 25 percent of his drum kit. In addition to that and a standard snare, he uses just one tom-tom instead of the two or three or four that go into the standard drum set. And don’t even ask about the cymbals. Forget about the splash cymbal and the crash and even the double-domed high-hat, which has come to symbolize the jazz drummer’s art. In their place stands a solitary ride cymbal, which Parker plays with sticks and mallets, above and below–somehow managing to obviate the fact that he, quite literally, is not playing with a full set.

Parker’s imagination also extends to the beat itself–more specifically, to the subdivisions of the beat that give jazz its swing and vitality. Parker (who has his own hot debut album on the Epicure label) builds his art on suggestion. He juggles his limited sonic resources to suggest a larger instrument; and like a gifted sleight-of-hand artist he uses misdirection of accents and emphases to suggest rhythms (and even counterrhythms) that aren’t really there.

Clearly, the talents of Terrasson and Parker would have come to the fore soon enough: previous to their new recordings, Parker had caught the ear of Joshua Redman and his father Dewey, and Terrasson had worked with two of the leading “talent scouts” in jazz, Betty Carter and the recently deceased drummer Art Taylor. But just as clearly, Terrasson’s success at the Monk competition pushed up the timetable. That victory, though, apparently required an act of faith on the part of the judges. According to published reports–notably the one in the New York Times–the jury had fingered Terrasson as the odds-on favorite going in because his entry tape had so clearly outshone all the others. Yet in his onstage performance before the judges Terrasson stumbled badly, leading observers to wonder whether he had in fact blown his advantage. Reports suggested that his victory represented a decision by the judges to indeed honor the best pianist–even if he had not played the best concert in competition.

I mention this not to detract from Terrasson’s victory in jazz’s most prestigious competition; nor should it slight his abilities as a musician, since he would hardly be the first jazzman to play inconsistently. (Sonny Rollins, for example, has had a reputation for inconsistency that sometimes approaches his stature as the greatest living improviser; one might even argue a connection between the two.) But the promise of his debut recording might help explain the sense of deflation that followed Terrasson’s much-ballyhooed opening set.

The trio alternately floated and stomped through its arrangements, and never lacked for color and sparkle; for that matter, Terrasson will never be less than an excellent pianist, and he will always have at least moments of brilliance. But he and the trio never expanded on their recorded music; the message never got deeper. For all the novelty and glamour–including a mysterious version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in which the tune slowly took shape over the repetition of a short, atonal bass figure–the performance stalled at the level of self-conscious virtuosity. The attractive complexity of the music proved to be not the doorway in but the chamber itself.

Going back to the Showcase for Terrasson’s final set of the weekend, I found a rather different band. Unburdened of opening-night de-mands, loosened perhaps by that closing-up-shop, nothing-left-to-prove mind-set, the trio just played. As they punished the straight-ahead tempos, freed of clever arrangements and well-planned contours, I heard a much purer take on improvisation and a more lasting if less flashy musical vision. Less of Jamal, more of Jarrett, and plenty of rolling, narrative solo work from Terrasson, who built progressively complicating solos and tried to sweep his band along with him. Yet for all its virtues, this approach pointed up other weaknesses: the failure of bassist Ugonna Okegwo to step up and drive the increasingly tumultuous rhythms, and the inability of Parker, for all his creativity, to fully engage the music’s larger sweep with his miniature trap set.

In some ways, Terrasson’s trio might seem a perfect fin de siecle jazz unit. With high concept and glittering recapitulation, it reaffirms some of the most advanced and stirring musical ideas of the last half century, specifically the heightened sensibilities of great piano trios from Jamal through Jarrett. But in skimming the lighter, more obvious techniques off the top, Terrasson has thus far missed the depth and context, the real soul of the music his trio draws upon. I’ve overstated the case a little; I don’t mean to disparage Terrasson and company as much as locate the message in their music. But so far the message seems to be the medium. This is piano-trio music about piano-trio music, and I hope that these guys will eventually take us further than that.

I said earlier that Terrasson is an excellent pianist, and I’ll go so far as to call him a superlative one. But he is not yet a great musician–nor has he shown that we can necessarily expect that from him. Unquestionably solid and in full control of his skills, he leads a stylized and impressive trio, and he has a few quite spectacular tricks up his sleeve. But I think we should hold off the coronation until at least his next album.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marc PoKempner.