Appearances truly are deceiving: the photos on the outer panels of Wherever You’re Starting From show an unassuming, t-shirt clad youth who could be mistaken for someone gearing up for an Xbox marathon or IT coding session. Don’t be fooled: as Rob Clearfield’s fourth album clearly shows, the Chicago native is a pianist and composer with a serious set of chops. Issued on bassist Matt Ullery’s Woolgathering Records, Clearfield’s second solo piano outing is a remarkably expressive collection that speaks powerfully on behalf of his virtuosic technical ability but also his imaginative take on the solo jazz piano tradition.
One of the things that distinguishes his playing is its elegant impressionistic character and wedding of jazz and classical forms, and to that end it doesn’t surprise that since his 2009 debut album A Thousand Words, Clearfield’s allocated much time to the study of the classical music canon and specifically Brahms, Chopin, Rachmoninoff, Ravel, and Debussy. Though the album includes a rather straightforward treatment of Brahms’ “Intermezzo No. 2 In Bb Minor, Op. 117,” it’s Debussy whose influence is most clearly felt in Clearfield’s highly textural playing. At the jazz end of the spectrum, he pays homage to another hero, John Coltrane, in an audacious re-imagining of “Giant Steps.”
That classical-tinged, Debussy-esque quality is evident from the start when “Prologue” accentuates as much its lead melody line as rippling waves that sparkle as radiantly as sunlight reflecting off a water surface. There’s a spontaneity to the playing here and in the eleven pieces that follow that makes the music feel freshly-born, and, as “Starchild,” “Minor,” and “Major” so mesmerizingly illustrate, Clearfield’s playing dazzles in being technically advanced without any compromise to musicality.
Improvisation is eschewed for the “Intermezzo No. 2 In Bb Minor, Op. 117” rendering, the pianist aware that Brahms’ material presented straight is entrancing without anything supplementary grafted onto it. Some remarkable sleight-of-hand enters into the treatment of “Giant Steps” in the way the familiar melody only blossoms after a luscious, expansive rumination. Clearfield’s absorption of the American jazz and blues traditions emerges during the carefully calibrated swing of “What Was Your Name Again?” and “Blues In C” whereas his romantic side is revealed, if fleetingly, in sensitive renderings of the wistful title cut and the tender ballad “Alice.”
Musing upon an idea of his that involved sitting down at the piano and playing a complete song on the spot, Clearfield described a particular goal he set for himself long ago as follows: “My stream-of-consciousness song would have the nuanced development of a meticulously revised composition and the emotional rigor of a deeply personal song, while still overflowing with the immediacy and expressiveness of improvisation. It’s still my dream to do that. I’m working on it.” Though Clearfield apparently feels as if he’s not yet reached that goal, much of Wherever You’re Starting From indicates otherwise.