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Red Leaf, Grey Sky: Piano Improvisations
By Catherine Marie Charlton
Label: River Dawn Productions
Released 10/1/2011
Red Leaf, Grey Sky: Piano Improvisations tracks
1. Lullaby for Swingtime
2. Introspection
3. Wonder
4. Red Leaf, Grey Sky
5. Transformation
6. The Sun is Shining, the Birds are Singing
red leaf, grey sky
Pianist Catherine Marie Charlton's red leaf, grey sky has a rather special history as a recording. The music itself contains a piece that was written all the way back in 1993 (The Sun is Shining, the Birds are Singing), also a track that Charlton composed over several months as her newborn son napped in his baby swing in her recording studio (Lullaby for Swingtime) and the remaining four songs are spur-of-the-moment free improvisations. All the songs were recorded in one fell swoop on October 24. 2010 (per the artist, the opportunity to record was a spur of the moment occurrence). The result is a varied, deeply introspective (even somewhat avant garde at times), and intimately reflective long-play EP (the six tracks comprise about 25 minutes of music). One thing that any piano music fan will come away with from listening to this recording is (or should be) an appreciation for Charlton's astute control of nuance and tone, exemplified by songs which can hover in the air like wisps of smoke or explode in a cavalcade of drama and power.

Despite the CD being recorded in the fall, only some of the music has a decided autumnal cast, notably the title piece which perfectly captures with its sparse piano the essence of the titular seasonal reference. The opening Lullaby for Swingtime has a gentle rollicking mood, not a lullaby-like feel as one might suspect. A playful tune, Charlton allows her fingers to dance over the keys, as if celebrating the very nature of the piano's sound itself. By contrast, Introspection opens in a downcast mood, and here Charlton allows her rather unconventional side to surface, as she experiments with abrupt changes in pace, volume, and mood. From a quiet passage, almost delicate in nature, the music can then erupt in a flurry of notes and passion, just as thoughts and emotions in a person's mind during introspection can veer from the sedate to the chaotic as the person "tips over mental rocks to see what's underneath." Wonder, likewise, strays from the straight and narrow of new age piano with its opening arrhythmic cadence where notes seem to run away from each other at varying tempos to a louder passage and drastic shifts in volume, especially in the midsection of the piece, and near its conclusion exploding with orgasmic power only to fold in on itself slowly piece-by-piece and quiet down to a whisper by song's end. Next is the title cut, and as mentioned before, this is wondrous exploration of gentle melancholy and reflection, befitting the title's reference to autumn, a time when the world slows and our thoughts turn almost universally inward. Transformation returns to the shifting sands of "Introspection" and "Wonder" opening with a gentle series of plaintive notes before Charlton uncorks her imagination and displays some deft playing exuding restrained power and subtle dissonance. At one point, the song erupts in an almost cheerful melody, although not overly so. Perhaps the song is meant to evoke the changing colors of the leaves which, while beautiful, also signal the eventual arrival of winter and the harsh coldness. Unlike what has come before, the closing The Sun is Shining, the Birds are Singing is a lighthearted, festive, and energetic conclusion, perhaps meant to affirm to the listener that despite the autumnal chill in the air and other signs of the season, there are many reasons for hope and joy since, if not here, at least somewhere the sun is indeed shining and birds are singing with abandon, celebrating life by raising their collective voices.

I admire Catherine Marie Charlton for releasing such an ambitious project (meaning that from my perspective and compared to many solo piano recordings I get, this one is much more adventurous). This is not unapproachable or inaccessible, but those who enjoy 20th (or 21st) century classical piano may find this easier to digest (at least three of the tracks). I certainly can't fault the artist's abundant talent as she seems to be able to handle anything her imagination comes up with at any given time. Also, the recording and mastering by Eric Troyer are excellent – the sound on this disc is exemplary. My only caveat is to be careful where you set the volume controls on your CD player as the abrupt changes in volume (if one turns the volume UP to hear the subtle nuances of the quieter passages) may jolt you out of your reverie!
Rating: Very Good   Very Good
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 12/16/2011
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