As it happens, this afternoon I picked up randomly from the enormous pile of last year’s records that are still waiting for a review, retrieving a couple of absolute gems in the process. Freedonia is run by Jay Zelenka, who in August (of 2008…) had sent me a letter which described the artistic intentions of this “micro-label”: “to promote contemporary musical endeavours and to preserve vintage recordings that are out of print or were never released”. Together with the missive there were two CDs by pianist Greg Mills who – like all musicians involved with this imprint – is based in St. Louis, the “geographic unifying factor” of the enterprise. Mills is a technically gifted architect of the Steinway, a classical grounding manifest since the first moment one hears him playing; these are the only works published under his name to date.
Esfoma was originally conceived in 1984 yet it sounds unmarked by the passage of time and totally gratifying, characterized as it is by a kind of passionate expressiveness corroborated by digital nimbleness and thoughtful artistry. This is the album that probably will satisfy the listeners who want to enjoy more harmonic content and less experimentation (although rarely the man leaves us without a serious attempt to transcend the barriers of genres). The composer/improviser himself lists the influences that lie behind these five pieces: Charles Ives, Cecil Taylor, Indian raga, 20th century European serialism, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Blue Oktober, recorded in 1998, saw the light eight years later; its subtitle is “improvised compositions for piano: solo, duos, trios and percussion”. Mills used tapes of live concerts as a basis, to which he added instant overdubs, capturing the whole in a single take. A superior stage of pianism is in this case showcased in shorter episodes and contrasting snippets, and parts of the program might result slightly difficult to digest for the scarcely trained. This record, too, is a magnificent example of clever improvisational craft, in a way appearing as the ideal complement for the contrapuntal lusciousness that characterizes the majority of Esfoma.
I would definitely recommend to get a copy of both releases for better understanding the creative vision of this musician, whose dedication to the instrument is evidently visceral. A rare occasion in which the listener can be gratified either by an attentive, concentrated examination of the material or by keeping it at lower volume while maintaining the same sort of enchantment, such is the sheer delight originated by the mere presence of those gorgeous runs, clusters and designs which – even in the knottiest sections – seem to be influenced by a touch of romantic melancholy. This is what attributes a unique voice to Mills, a hitherto obscure talent that must be brought to wider attention worldwide, a veritable rejuvenator for those who feel tired of listening to problematic albums just for the sake of belonging to certain circles of (a)pathetic intellectualism. This stuff reconciles with life by respecting the true aim of music: something that’s played from the heart, received by sensible human beings, able to elevate them that tiny bit indispensable for carrying on through the mental and emotional poverty experienced daily. Something that’s plain beautiful.