If they gave out medals for artistic courage, then young jazz pianist and composer Chris Donnelly deserves the Victoria Cross. For his second album, he has chosen not only to pursue the unique path of solo piano, but to record a single 50 minute composition. The creative risks he has taken have paid off, for Metamorphosis is a stunningly accomplished and richly rewarding work.
Metamorphosis is based on the 1939 work of that name by world-renowned Dutch graphic artist, MC Escher. Just as Escher's monumental graphic delights its viewers with its imaginative shape-shifting, Donnelly's composition takes the listener on a fascinating journey through a musical landscape that changes subtly and seamlessly. Chris explains that the concept behind his album dates back to 2008.
"I had started writing music after I released [debut CD] Solo, and I was reading a book called Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. I was intrigued by his idea that things are more related than we think they are, and by his explorations of concepts like infinity and recursive structures. Escher has a key role in the book, and one of his works included was Metamorphosis. I started thinking a lot about those themes while I was writing musical pieces that were all related on some level, melodically, rhythmically, and thematically."
Parallels between Escher's work and the compositions Donnelly was writing gradually became clearer, Chris says. "I had the idea of writing music like this picture. Start with a theme, and end with it, but write nine or ten tunes that are all related and bring them all together in this one piece. The result is a perfect balance of composition, improvisational structure, and challenging technique. There's a challenge in just sitting down and playing this that I found exciting."
That sense of excitement infused the recording session for Metamorphosis. Along with producer Peter Cardinali (head of Donnelly's record label, ALMA) and his technical crew, Donnelly set up shop in noted Toronto studio, The Drive Shed. "I had never played the piece right through before then," recalls Chris. "I was a little worried about endurance, but I think the adrenaline of being in this beautiful studio with an amazing Steinway piano took over."
Donnelly played the work in its entirety four separate times, then he and Cardinali chose their preferred take. That is the version you are now listening to. This recording method truly captures the adventurousness of the album's concept, and the sonic fidelity on display is of the highest order. The purity and clarity of Donnelly's piano playing is mesmerizing throughout, and confirms he possesses both technique and a musical maturity rare in an artist his age.
The poetic power of Metamorphosis has been recognized by Toronto's Poet Laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. He has written a 10 line poem inspired by the work, with each line serving as a title for each of the ten movements. It reads:
You are the dancer,
In the time-scape of sound
You enter the fountain,
Cresting, falling away,
In the chimera of notes.
You hear the voice,
In a blossom of water
Saying you are the azure,
The bough of time.
You are the dance.
The talent of the Toronto born and raised Donnelly was apparent very early on. At age three he enrolled in Humber College's Community Music School, and by 10 he was already improvising and playing in ensembles. He was simultaneously studying classical piano at The Royal Conservatory of Music, and, as he notes, "I was part of the first generation of jazz students and now professional musicians who started out with both a jazz and classical education." By the time he was in high school, Chris' passion for jazz was in full flower. "As well as people like Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett, I'd see what my local heroes were doing, players like Brian Dickinson and Kirk MacDonald." he says. "I'd get to watch and hear them both in the Toronto clubs and when they came to Humber."
His next stop was The University of Toronto, where six years of intense study resulted in a Masters of Music in Jazz Performance. Chris studied under noted jazz pianist David Braid for two years there, and cites him as something of a mentor. Sensing his emerging talent, the University conferred the Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award upon Donnelly, an honour given to the student "deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music." Chris has wasted no time in living up to the terms of this award, and he is also now a professor at U of T.
Donnelly burst onto the Canadian jazz scene in dramatic fashion with his 2008 debut album, Solo, on ALMA Records. The record balanced inventive reinterpretations of jazz standards by the legendary likes of Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and seven original compositions that showcased his immense potential as a writer. Nominated for both Juno and National Jazz Awards, Solo won Donnelly the respect of his peers, while subsequent international touring confirmed Chris as an engaging performer.
Now, with Metamorphosis, Chris Donnelly is poised to take a quantum leap in his career. News of this project is already arousing international interest, and, in a real coup, the Escher estate has granted permission for Chris to reproduce the artist's work for the album cover. Tracking the artistic metamorphosis of this musical visionary promises to be a true pleasure.