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Matthew Bourne: Montauk Variations

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Matthew Bourne

Montauk Variations


“Senectitude,” a word rare enough that an internet search is as likely to suggest crossword puzzle forums as it is actual definitions, translates roughly to old age. But more than old age as a state of being, overloaded with physical and cultural associations, the word implies old age as a final stage of passage, the part of the transoceanic voyage where land has come back into view. The word’s archaic enough that quite quickly in your search for a definition, you might come to pianist Matthew Bourne’s song of the same name, on his just released record of lyrical jazz wanderings into austere chamber pieces, Montauk Variations. It’s a pivotal moment in the record, as what’s been a first half dominated by spare piano jazz exploration moves with unexpected ease into a slow viola build that is anything but jazzy. A listener will also learn at least one other thing about senectitude, beyond a feeling of sadness too serene to be felt as purely sad: It is too short.

“IX: Senectitude” is just over a minute and represents one of the record’s two poles, the other being “V: Étude Psychotique (For John Zorn),” which is all in the name: frantic, atonal keyboard chasing cut with brief resonant intimations of doom from several octaves down. Bourne, more frequently seen in avant-garde jazz ensembles than solo, spends notes cautiously, in particular on “II: The Mystic’s” eight or so minutes of broad peaks and valleys of sharp, urgent plonking and notes born from keys barely touched. After we meet “Senectitude” and it’s held our hand on the way out, we are in an afterlife largely without solo piano’s discrete, linear guideposts. “XI: Abrade” is mostly creaking, a closeup of an old rusty door hinge, but most likely something repurposed from the piano’s guts, with the slightest of notes pushing out from underneath. More strings follow, in pieces recalling left-field chamber folks like Peter Broderick and Richard Skelton, and the piano itself has changed mood throughout the record’s second half, found those particular keys that shade the world such perfect blends of grays and blues. Finally, in a record that more and more becomes a passage into the void, comes “XVI: Unsung,” which is more the absence of a song: (I think) two deep piano chords timestretched into wavering atmosphere, dissipating at glacial timescales. It all ends with “Smile,” the one song out of 17 that comes without a Roman numeral or part to play in Montauk Variations, just a gorgeous, lingering solo piano song you’d rather didn’t end—ever.

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