Normally, when a work has ‘Variations’ in its title, there is usually a theme in existence for the variations to stem from. That doesn’t appear to be the case on jazz pianist Matthew Bourne’s debut solo album; rather the pieces are inspired by a number of different and diverse sources and are therefore variations on these influences. Another explanation might be the sheer amount of variety that Bourne gets from his piano; if you had any doubts about the versatility of the instrument (and, really, you shouldn’t), prepare to have them dismissed.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t, strictly speaking, jazz. For the most part, anyway, it’s more like early 20th century chamber music – calm, measured and thoughtful rather than swiftly charging through numerous improvisations around a central chord sequence or melody. “The Mystic” is a lengthy, meditative piece with the occasional cluster of notes by way of contrast. The slow rising-and-falling chord pattern of “Infinitude” sounds like the piano breathing, lungs filling with air and then exhaling. The brief “Étude Psychotique (for John Zorn)” is well-named, a short sprint of a piece which, to these ears, sounds like one of Satie’s studies of sea creatures. That’s followed by the Cage-ian experiment of playing inside the piano – the lower strings act as a double bass, the wood works as percussion, a bit like a prepared piano without the preparation part. These tracks all appear in the first third, as Bourne operates on the ‘try it, and move on’ approach. The album was recorded in three days but covers some two years worth of Bourne’s experimentations.
This isn’t a crisp, clean capturing of sound either; aside from the tracks where Bourne is playing with the piano’s interior there is plenty of ambient noise coming from the actual playing and the space where it’s being recorded. Whether this was intentional or not, it works, presenting the piano as a living instrument and placing the listener firmly in the same space. This intimacy is a key factor in the album’s success; it really feels like a solo performance to an audience of one. There’s even an encore piece as Bourne ends with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”; the mournful, reflective mood is maintained as the last note fades into nothingness.
Montauk Variations is both experimental and accessible; the variations on the instrument itself are still melodic even when Bourne is poking around in the workings. It’s generally an introspective work that one has to focus on; if you want the sound of a piano tinkling away in the background look elsewhere. This is the sound of a brilliant musician in full command of his ability, not wishing to stay within any preconceived notions of what a jazz (or classical) artist should play; Bourne isn’t just crossing over barriers here, he’s smashing them down with gleeful abandon. (Jeremy Bye)