Reviewed by Donovan Johnson
“Heartwork” is an album that was released by pianist Jesse Brown in 2014. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect before listening to this album, and I can say the same is likely true even after having listened to it. “Heartwork” is an incredibly diverse album, and as rock solid musically as it gets in the Contemporary Piano genre. There are elements of classical music interspersed throughout the recording, along with jazz, folk, and easy listening. The only thing that’s really missing here is any sort of “New Age” element, which I found to be refreshing in a modern day original piano recording.
As I listened, I found that the album consistency lay not in the music tracks, but in Jesse’s playing style, and even more so in the sound of the piano that was played on the album. There’s nothing remotely approaching “harsh” or offensive in the instrument that’s used to create these sound recordings, in fact it’s one of the “sweetest” sounding pianos I’ve ever listened to. The rich, sweet piano tone is like a dessert to the ears, and although it did take a little bit of getting used to, I found that after adjusting to it the listening experience was beyond remarkable.
Jesse’s playing style only adds to what this piano has to offer. His touch is very light, very gentle, and yet very controlled. He is in control of his piano at all times, and never do the notes under his fingertips sound forced or in any way attacked. By contrast, the recordings don’t sound excessively mellow either, or what I call “mouse-y.” Jesse has found his musical pocket, and is able to perform inside of his tonal sweet spot every time. This, in combination with the instrument itself, creates a sound experience that’s as smooth as silk, as light as air, and as rich as melted butter.
The first of my “top three” songs on this album is “Un Jour De Pluie,” track five on the album. Here we have a gentle and reflective waltz, a bright sounding composition that’s full of musical surprises. Jesse is a master at using different chords and chord progressions to change up the otherwise familiar parts of the song. In addition to that he occasionally steers away from the familiar just enough to veer off of the musical path – nothing dramatic. Soon after, he brings you right back to where you were only to veer off for a moment once again. But did you even notice that you veered away from the theme? Thanks to Jesse’s effortless playing, I’m guessing not. This is compositional mastery coupled with a well intentioned performance, and is not heard often enough in today’s piano world.
“Harvest” is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the song is written in seven-four time, another rarity in today’s music world. The piece begins with a gentle left hand octave and a right hand melody that unravels over top, creating listening anticipation. The nature of a harvest is often itself full of anticipation, and Jesse brings that musical message home in the first part of this track. The song then unfolds in a bigger, jazz – pop style chorus. A beautiful fall day, blue skies and the joy of a bountiful harvest are what come to mind here, and it’s a thrill to be a part of it. My only complaint is that the song ends too soon! I could keep listening to this one end to end for hours.
At this point it was a bit difficult to decide on a third pick. All of the tracks on this album are spectacular, but I finally settled on “Woolly Moose” due to it’s nostalgic jazzy flavor. Unlike any other track on the album, we once again have a diversion in style as Jesse treats us to the sounds of composers like Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi. There’s almost a “Peanuts” vibe to this piece, although it’s slightly more contemporary and blues based than most of Guaralidi’s material. The relaxed, laid back sound of the tune will have you reminiscing and taking a trip back in time to an era that goes back forty or fifty years, a truly “feel good” listening experience.
“Heartwork” is an album that I would highly recommend to almost anyone due to its musical diversity and “easy to listen to” nature. Jesse Brown is an incredibly gifted pianist and composer of music, and albums as well put together as this one are few and far between. From the artwork, to the composing, to the playing, to the recording itself, Jesse has created a timeless masterpiece that deserves to be enjoyed for years to come. Five stars.
Reviewed by Donovan Johnson
Every year many or our Contemporary piano artists release a Christmas/Holiday recording, and I look forward to listening to them. Few of them are able to describe in music what Jesse Brown has created in his 2012 offering, “December.” Simply put, this is an album that perfectly balances all that we associate with the wintry month that the album is named after.
There’s a “coldness” to the early portion of “December,” a crispness in the playing style coupled with the occasional unconventional chord progression that creates a somewhat chilling atmosphere. As the album progresses it becomes atmospherically warmer and warmer, until we reach final track which is as inviting as a home full of loved ones on Christmas Day. There’s nothing at all uncomfortable or piercing about these songs, or the album as a whole. Listening to the recording straight through is more like being bundled up outside on a cold winter day and making your way to a warm and inviting shelter. In this way Jesse’s programming of the music from song to song couldn’t be more thoughtful, and it makes for very effective listening.
The first of my top three songs on “December” would have to be track six, “Twas The Moon Of Wintertime,” which is based on “The Huron Christmas Carol.” Here we have a track with a very earthy and organic structure, full of dark tonality and a fairly brisk chord movement. Many influences go into this piece, from the original French composer of the song to the Native Canadian Huron culture with which he became familiar. Add to that Jesse’s own influences and arranging capabilities and you find yourself with something truly fascinating to listen to. Images of sitting outside on a snowy night around a blazing fire are what come to mind here, along with a sense of mystery and uncertainty as to what lies beyond the dark. This is a track that I could listen to over and over.
“Shchedryk” is a popular Christmas carol that is today known as “Carol Of The Bells.” Jesse has chosen to use the original title of the song, which when translated from the original Ukrainian, means “Little Swallow.” This is significant, because the way the song is played (the mechanics of Jesse’s playing) reflect that image beautifully. Jesse glides over the piano keys, flowing from note to note and from chord to chord. The left hand gently wisps between keys and progressions like a small bird in flight, with the right hand floating gently overtop. There’s a nice deconstruction that takes place at the intro and in the middle of this arrangement, which builds the music nicely and creates a lovely view of takeoff from the perspective of a swallow beginning it’s journey. Grey skies, impending winter, and a little bird following it’s seasonal instincts are the setting here. This is probably my favourite track on the album.
Let’s have a look at the final song on the recording, “Silent Night Blue.” Jesse changes things up completely with his nostalgic sounding, blues based arrangement of “Silent Night.” The familiar song is itself very easy to recognize, while surrounding the melody we hear the very gentle influences of honky tonk, New Orleans style jazz, and composer Vince Guaraldi. It’s not necessarily an upbeat arrangement, but it’s an enjoyable listening experience in a very casual and relaxing setting. Imagine “chill blues” meets “Silent Night” with a swing and you’ll get the idea. It’s a perfect ending to a well crafted album, as it invites you to have another listen, and maybe another after that. Pour yourself a scotch and enjoy!
If you’re looking for something new to add to your holiday music collection, the simple truth is, you can’t go wrong here. “December” is a well played and put together album, and a high quality recording of thoughtful Christmas arrangements. From classical influences, to jazz, blues and new age sounds, Jesse Brown has you covered and he’s done it in a way that’s blended and balanced. Sometimes when artists attempt to do this the album comes off as “forced” and diversified in an unnatural way. That is not at all the case here, and I would encourage you to have a listen and see for yourself. Whomever you are, “December” will make an excellent addition to your seasonal listening. Five Stars