Pianist Bill Anschell normally involves himself in projects that shine with a high polish, recordings like the Wellstone Conspiracy's collaborative Motives (Origin, 2010) and his own More to the Ear than Meets the Eye (Origin, 2006), or in the sideman slot on the marvelous Reunion, led by saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Hadley Caliman. In addition, Anschell served as Nnenna Freelon's pianist/arranger/musical director for a number of years, where a sheen on the vocalist's backdrop was the name of the game.
Anschell goes with a very different approach on Figments, exploring the world of solo piano, in a late night, after-the paying-gig, no-adult-supervision frame of mind. The results, even for those familiar with Anschell's work, are a wonderful surprise.
Anschell's ability to craft a cohesive ensemble sound can sometimes overshadow his skill, creativity and spontaneity as a pianist. There's no chance of that happening on Figments, as he sits down alone on an odd set of Great American Songbook classics, mixed with a bunch of unlikely tunes, covered in an idiosyncratic way. Anschell stretches and bends the familiar melodies to near-breaking point, in turns ruminative, playful, dark, and sparkling.
Anschell sounds very much as if he's enjoying the freedom of exploring Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant"?playing, then brooding, taking unexpected turns around the famous eatery, romping and then sauntering, as he maintains the thread of the melody. Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" has a things-that-go-bump-and-plunk-in-the-night sound ("Late last night I heard the screen door slam.."), as Anschell uses a prepared piano to alter the sound through odd items placed inside the box: a rubber mouse pad, a necklace with plastic beads, a book, a tape measure...all in an approach that must drive his piano tuner crazy, but lends a unique, clunky-but-modern sound to the normal hammer-on-strings.
Rodgers and Hart's always lovely "It Never Entered My Mind" gets a makeover, with a brooding mood and some subtle dissonance, while Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" gets twisted around, as Anschell frolics from the familiar into unexplored possibilities of the tune.
Anschell visits the 1960s with his pop music choices, with The Beatles' "Across the Universe" and "Ask Me Why," The Eagles' "Desperado," and Blood, Sweat and Tears' "Spinning Wheel," all filtered through Anschell's sonic funhouse mirror, while the standard "Willow Weep for Me" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" inject some energy and sass to the set.
Figments: Bill Anschell alone and letting go, taking a risk that pays off nicely.