There’s more to the art of one of Chicago’s most poetic jazz pianists than listeners may have realized.
For though Rob Clearfield has produced immensely attractive music leading his own ensembles and collaborating with singer Grazyna Auguscik and bassist Matt Ulery, among others, he reveals different facets of his art in his newest release, the solo album “Where You’re Starting From” (Woolgathering Records).
Through a series of improvisations, as well as two compositions penned by his musical heroes, Clearfield blurs boundaries separating jazz and classical idioms. In so doing, he reminds us that such distinctions are less important than we may think, if only because these languages have been influencing each other for more than a century.
Both course through every track of “Where You’re Starting From,” the pianist aspiring high.
“I was definitely looking to explore free improvisations from a compositional standpoint,” says Clearfield, who will share a program with vibraphonist Joel Ross on Saturday evening at Constellation.
“Meaning: I have this fantasy idea of sitting down at the piano and playing something that I’ve never played before – totally improvising it – but it’s well-rounded in a way that an edited composition is. For me, that’s the ultimate goal, the way I play solo.”
Thus the selections on “Where You’re Starting From” are not casual noodlings on the keyboard but, rather, extemporaneous musical thoughts in which themes emerge, transform and re-emerge. Whether Clearfield is murmuring down low in the keyboard in “Starchild” or crafting pithy motifs in “What Was Your Name Again?” or bringing Brahmsian intensity to the title track, certain signatures of his playing are unmistakable: the gentleness of his touch, warmth of his tone and radiantly lyrical quality of his phrases.
For Clearfield, this recording represents — among other things — a chance to embrace influences on his music that he hadn’t been fully aware of.
“Before I really know I was influenced by classical music, people would say to me: I hear some classical stuff in your playing, and I really like that, and you should do more of that,” Clearfield says.
“Even people who are very distant from that world, people who are very squarely in hip-hop or very squarely in rock. That’s the feedback I got on ‘Islands,’” adds Clearfield, referring to his genre-bending, 2016 trio album.
“The tracks that have the most classical influence got some strong reactions, in a positive way. So I thought: Maybe I should explore that.”
A solo setting made that possible, for here Clearfield could range freely, unencumbered by percussion backbeats, walking bass lines or thundering horns. With 88 keys at his fingertips, he could change tempo, rhythmic approach and chordal textures at the drop of a sixteenth note, and he has taken full advantage of that opportunity.
He also has left no doubt about his reverence for the music of Johannes Brahms, not only in his improvisations but in his recording of the master’s Intermezzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 117.
“Brahms in particular is a really special composer and musician to me,” says Clearfield, whose conversance with classical repertoire dates to his childhood piano lessons.
“There’s such a depth to what he does, but without pretension. … Harmonically, Brahms is a fascinating composer to me, and he’s such a master of development.
“With characters like Liszt and Chopin — as much as I love them — there’s, I don’t want to say bombast, there’s exuberance. They’re at this peak level of virtuosity. Brahms is doing serious things with exploring the instrument; there’s more restraint and patience.”
Or, to put it in other terms, the keyboard music of Liszt and Chopin is intensely pianistic, exploiting the sonic possibilities of the instrument. Brahms’ piano works — with their block chords and thick textures — sound more symphonic or, as Clearfield descriptively puts it, “chamber-y.”
It’s an aesthetic that suits Clearfield’s fervent but understated approach to making music. So it comes as no surprise that the other composer he salutes on his album is John Coltrane, with a deeply personal response to “Giant Steps.”
Coltrane “shares that humble intensity and seriousness” of Brahms, says Clearfield, who finds guidance in the work of two composers he acknowledges “you wouldn’t confuse one for the other.”
All of which made this a more daunting project than Clearfield anticipated.
“I went into this thinking: This is going to be a fun, easy album to make — I’ll just sit down and play some stuff, and I’ll be happy with it,” he says.
“It was much more challenging than that. I felt like I really had to put my whole self in there.”
The result is Clearfield’s most revealing album yet, notwithstanding an earlier, self-released solo album of 2009, “A Thousand Words.”
“With this format, the elephant in the room that can’t be ignored is definitely Keith Jarrett,” says Clearfield, citing a pianist perhaps most loved (and loathed) for his expansive solo recordings.
“In a way, this is a bit of an exercise to play this format and not sound like Keith Jarrett.”
To his credit, he does not.