Frozen Heat #FH1001
Houston-based Composer/Pianist Kris Becker’s recently released album Inventions presents an overwhelmingly wide spectrum of musical genres, it is hard to believe one mind is responsible for all of it. Within, listeners will find rock songs, jazz ballads, and finely crafted style studies of J.S. Bach surrounding the over-arching jazz-infused neo-romanticism that seems to be at the heart of Mr. Becker’s musical personality. Proudly fusing popular idioms with beloved sounds from art music’s past, Inventions is a daring cross-genre musical endeavor; and, though it may overload your ears with variety, Inventions is a pleasantly memorable, moving and successful achievement.
All the music on Inventions is expertly performed, elegantly produced and solidly composed, making is undeniably evident that Kris Becker is a uniquely talented musician. There is very little to criticize in terms of pure content: nearly every track, regardless of genre, succeeded both as a representative of its given style and an isolated musical object. The two rock songs, “Feel the Truth” and “Try”, were well done and absolutely convincing on a musical level: they sounded like rock songs written by rock musicians, not a composer’s vain attempt at rock music. More impressive were the two alternate recordings of the song “If Ever Two Were One”, the first of which was done in a sultry, slow jazz style and the second was totally transformed into an art song a la Ned Rorem. Both Mr. Becker and his vocalist Sarah Welch amazed me with their fully persuasive metamorphosis from one style to another, which made these two tracks among the hallmarks of the entire album.
The rest of the tracks on the CD are solo piano compositions performed by Mr. Becker. Though not highly chromatic or modernist in any way, these works reflect a variety of influences and allude to a deep love of 19th-Century classicism, all types of Jazz and niche popular styles, such as musical theater. To this end, these compositions almost act as a commentary on the rock and jazz songs that start the album, almost like Mr. Becker has chosen to distill and abstract those formalized styles through his virtuosity at the piano.
The first of these pieces is Fanfare for Life, a highly rhythmic, moto-perpetuo work with sweeping harmonies and a step-wise melody set against blurry pan-diatonic ostinati. Both in content and form, Fanfare for Life typifies the pseudo-improvisatory, neo-tonal style I think is very close to Mr. Becker’s heart. Though allusions to jazz and neo-classicism are strongly present themes on this album, it is undeniable after that the mood and character of Fanfare for Life are closely tied to Mr. Becker’s truest impulses. In fact, the next work on the CD, Four Curiosities, ‘composes out’ many of the musical ideas set forth in Fanfare for Life, whether a focus of poppy syncopated rhythms in the first and last movements Anticipation and Groovin’ or melding a love of Baroque and Jazz music in the bluesy second movement Passacaglia.
Following Four Curiosities is the most neo-classical composition in collection, Inventions. These are highly disciplined exploration of simple keyboard inventions such as J.S. Bach’s familiar Two-Part Inventions. The connection between Mr. Becker’s inventions and the Bach model rings clearly in five of seven, which are essentially slightly more adventurous style studies of the Baroque master. The remaining two, Invention in D Lydian and Invention in D Dorian blur their Baroque roots a little by employing Jazz (or church) modes, which obscures the tonality of these pieces more than the others.
The last two works on the album play opposite roles in the course of the entire collection of music. Postludes, a set of five solo piano works, introduces new compositional ideas to what we’ve already heard insomuch as they are wilder character pieces than anything that has come before. Namely, the second-to-last movement, The Foibles of Pipersnatch, is elegantly and delightfully impish. It jumps register and style unpredictably – though, not randomly – and has a very mischievous musical personality, which comes through thanks to Mr. Becker’s abilities as composer and pianist. The final work on the album, Variations and Fantasias on a Somewhat Serious Theme reflects on much of the preceding musical territory. As the title suggests, the composition is deeply rooted in classicism, which comes through in the Theme, Etude and Invention movements. By the same token, some variations incorporate idioms from popular music (Excitable, Song Without Words) and others seem to represent the impressionistic, pan-diatonic sound I can only attribute to Mr. Becker’s compositional voice (Misterioso, Homage a Ravel).
Kris Becker’s Inventions is not an avant-garde manifesto, nor is it trite sentimentalism. At least in the community of composers close to me, many of my colleagues are trying to do the same this Mr. Becker pulls off in this recording: blending idioms from popular and classical music. I think music like that on Inventions is worthwhile to the masses of listeners on the fringe of art music because it challenges definitions and breaks down barriers between what the music they are familiar with (pop music) and that which they have never heard (most art music). Dubbed “nu-classical” in the liner notes, Mr. Becker’s style is evidently steeped in multiple genres but is not mere eclecticism. Rather, his compositions are a clear distillation of very personal musical impulses; a pensive exploration of the music he has studied, performed and listened to regardless of style.