Not to be confused with the celebrated choreographer of the same name, Matthew Bourne is an improvising pianist so far mostly renowned for exploring quirky and radical ensemble settings. This is his first album for The Leaf Label, one of the excellent independents already expanding its remit into jazz and improvisation through their signing of Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear. Bourne, however, has taken a somewhat surprising direction here, recording an album of mostly solo acoustic piano pieces at Dartington that explores his love of pastoral classical music (Gerald Finzi and Cyril Scott being two composers Bourne has cited) as much as his connections with improvisation and the jazz tradition.
Montauk Variations is a deeply considered and meditative affair, with a number of the selections arriving with personal dedications to other musicians (including to guitarist Jonathan Flockton, the legendary and forward thinking John Zorn and to Keith Tippett, who also recorded solo piano music at Dartington). This music demands considerable focus and attention from its audience but rewards such investment with an assured but quiet intensity. The particular payoff at the album’s conclusion is a touching and deeply individual interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile.
Initially, the music on Montauk Variations unfolds with the grace, patience and attention to detail of a Bela Tarr film. The opening Air (For Jonathan Flockton) begins with a gradual exposition of a single line. Next, The Mystic focuses more on harmonic development, but both pieces share a preoccupation with space and silence as intrinsic elements of the music. Infinitude has a luminous, striking calm – like a still light guiding a ship home. Bourne’s touch here is light and deft and he is completely uninterested in displays of virtuosity.
There are, however, moments that puncture the mood. Etude Psychotique, dedicated to John Zorn, is appropriately manic – the one reminder of Bourne’s characteristically restless style. Juliet and Senectitude are augmented by strings, with genuine success. The blend of sounds here is very carefully realised. Although the contrast between the rapid flurry of notes in the Etude and the romanticism of these pieces is pretty extreme – somehow Bourne still manages to accommodate all this within a coherent whole.
One of the album’s most exquisite works, amazingly, appears to have been inspired by the drone of a lawnmower – something Bourne decided to try and accompany rather than battle against. The results are a surprisingly soothing and comforting piece that demonstrate Bourne’s supreme confidence in his musical choices. Similarly, Cuppa Tea seems to find a wealth of charm and inspiration in the ordinary qualities of everyday life.
Perhaps the only example of a forced idea comes with the various prepared piano devices on Within (muted strings, percussive use of the body of the instrument), which no longer seem particularly novel or radical. Nevertheless, Bourne’s deployment of them here does provide a welcome variation in texture and mood.
There are obvious points of comparison here with other improvising musicians who have explored the still expanding hinterland between the jazz tradition and a more ‘contemporary classical’ compositional framework, not least the pioneering work of Keith Jarrett. But Bourne has little overtly in common with Jarrett – Bourne’s melodies are more elusive and there’s little of the spiritual vibrance of Jarrett’s more rhythmic moments. Perhaps Montauk Variations has something in common with Craig Taborn’s superb solo piano album from last year, Avenging Angel, although this is too recent a release to have been a direct influence on Bourne’s work. Still, the two pianists share a penchant for timing, space and reflection that results in refreshingly honest and original work.