October-20th-2007, 07:44 PM
Pianofest - Boston
One of the most original and forward-looking events on the Boston music calendar began almost by accident, as the result of the purchase of a piano. Five years ago composer Gill Aharon busted the bank to buy a 7-foot Kawai grand that ate up most of the space in his basement apartment. Now Aharon owns the Lily Pad, a gallery and performance space in Cambridge, and the Kawai is the house instrument. It is the centerpiece of Pianofest, a one-of-a-kind music marathon unfolding this weekend at the Inman Square venue.
The festival began Wednesday with the first of three concerts billed as "appetizers." But the marquee event takes place today and tomorrow, when close to 50 performers take turns at the Kawai for 30-minute sets from midday into the night, some playing solo, others accompanied by their groups, and offering music ranging from straight-ahead jazz to classical, blues, Latin, and any number of hybrids.
The brisk showcase format allows for a diversity of styles without any one genre hogging the stage. To make things easier for the audience to sample at its leisure, a single price ($15) purchases entry for each day, and audience members can come and go as they please, though Aharon is encouraging people to take in as much as they can.
"It's a fun event, like a kids' recital for professionals," he says. "You can hear 20 pianists in a row. . . . It's a survey of what's happening."
The Lily Pad's role as a convening spot and venue for jazz and creative music in Boston is evident in the list of players popping through this weekend, which includes something of a who's who of the local scene.
Some are Lily Pad regulars who have taken part in the festival ever since its first incarnation five years ago at the Zeitgeist Gallery, which previously occupied the Lily Pad space and where Aharon launched the event. Bluesman David Maxwell says the venue is one where he feels he can challenge himself.
"It's a great venue for taking it out," says Maxwell. "Most people know me as a blues pianist, but at the Lily Pad I really welcome the opportunity to stretch it out and go into jazz and beyond." He takes his turn at Pianofest tomorrow at 5 p.m.
Another long-timer from the Zeitgeist days, free-jazz player Steve Lantner, says Pianofest is a chance to help build ties among area musicians while playing with maximum creative freedom.
"It's a wonderful example of Gill Aharon's desire to nurture a sense of community among Boston's diverse group of musicians," says Lantner, who plays today at 5:30. "While so much piano music may be a bit overwhelming for any one person to experience in its entirety, the fact that so few places remain where one can hear pianists play the music that they want to play makes this a special occasion."
Nando Michelin, an Uruguayan pianist who has long worked in Boston, adds: "Pianofest shows how much local musicians love places like the Lily Pad. We all collaborate and get to listen and meet musicians we wouldn't meet otherwise."
But Pianofest isn't just a local gathering. A fair chunk of the bill is devoted to artists traveling from New York and elsewhere. They range from veteran jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen, one of the few who get a one-hour set (tomorrow at noon) to characters from New York's musical undergrounds, like songwriters Greta Gertler and Lee Feldman. These artists are happily making the trip to play a mini-set at a tiny venue, and they're not doing it for the money.
"Now that I think of it, it is kind of nuts that I'm traveling to Boston to do a half-hour gig," says Feldman, who has never played at the Lily Pad before. (He's on today at 4:30 p.m.) "But the piano-centric nature of it appealed to me."
"[The Lily Pad] has a really good atmosphere and care and attention to the music," says Gertler, who performs tonight at 9:30. "The room is great, and the piano is really well maintained. There aren't that many venues where the piano is such a focus."
Of the Kawai, she says: "It's very beautiful. It's not a very sentimental-sounding piano. It has a lot of ambiguity to it. It's hard to describe, but I really like it."
This weekend the Kawai will be getting a workout - as will Aharon, who will tune the instrument every half-hour at the intervals between sets. As a gesture of mercy toward the piano and himself, he has limited some of the most aggressive avant-garde music, which, he says, had a tendency to throw the instrument out of tune.