Pianist Derek Hunter Wilson admits that he is only starting to figure out who he is as a person. Music is his palette of discovery. The title Steel, Wood & Air refers to the instruments used across the album, while conjuring thoughts of public architecture and private creation. Joined here by Anna Fritz (cello), Mike Grabarek (bass clarinet) and Mirabai Peart (viola, violin), he creates a yearning suite that operates as a score to introspection.
This being said, it’s easy to read societal dissent in the lead single (and opening track) “Different Opinions.” When properly presented, differing opinions are part of a wondrous tapestry. In the modern conversation, they spark dispute. The piano attempts a filibuster while the clarinet and strings alternately attack and harmonize. Every so often, the strings fall into silence, occasionally taking the piano with them. Midway into the track, the mood shifts; the piano grows pensive. The other instruments seem to be listening, uttering only small phrases. Soon there is unanimity, if not agreement. Short silences reappear, more peaceful than before: no longer shocked, but thoughtful. The track exposes the damage of argument followed by the template of respect. Looking further into the album, one expects “Knife Fight” to revisit the issue, but this quiet piece seems unrelated to the first: the sadness following a fight, rather than the fight itself. After this, it’s no surprise that “With Eyes Closed” follows, one of the album’s softest pieces; and then “Foolish,” implying self-awareness and a desire to change. The center of “Foolish” bursts into bloom like a new genesis, a second life, a resolution, before returning to solo piano in the finale.
“Catalog of Trying” (which would have made a great album title as well) is one of the album’s most immediate pieces. In contrast to to opening track, this piece features all of the players performing as one, unified by a common vision. They surge forward, then retreat, building again from a complete stop. This is where the album art seems most significant, as one looks through the door, seeing light, but also another door; seeing destruction, but also the seeds of renovation. In light of the liner notes, one might interpret the photograph as portraying the reinvention of a person or a genre. The track’s title implies multiple attempts; the music implies future attempts.
Four movements of the title track round out the album, in shuffled order: 3, 4, 1, 7. We’re missing a few pieces; perhaps they have been discarded like drafts or alternate lives. “#1” begins in atonal fashion before recovering in mini-chapters; “#4” strikes discord before finding harmony atop a repeated piano passage. “#3” is rushed in the middle, relaxed at the beginning and end, while album closer “#10” is careful from beginning to end, preserving a fragile balance.
The conclusion is open-ended, reflecting the progress of Wilson’s quest; we’re there along with him, ready to walk through that open door. (Richard Allen)