Some wear the artist’s mantle lightly. Boston-bred pianist Donal Fox is one, sluicing classical and jazz streams with openhanded candor and ease. This native son has earned laurels globally for fearless, flawless, utterly logical keyboard adventures; he may perform European classics (Three Bees, Scarlatti, Chopin) and Viennese modernists (Schoenberg, Webern, Ligeti), combine them with New World strains (American jazz — Ellington, Monk, Coltrane; Afro-Cuban – Nin, Roldan, Lecuona; Argentine – Ginastera, Piazzolla) and recreate them with composed variations, improvised tangents, volcanic vamps, and Promethean eruptions. As I wrote in Downbeat Magazine, “He’s trying to loosen up the classical world, not ossify jazz.” Fox performs in many avatars: as Inventions Trio (with John Lockwood, double-bass and Dafnis Prieto, drums), in duo with vibraphonist Warren Wolf, a quartet with all three, or other constellations (saxophonists Oliver Lake, David Murray, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, cellist Maya Beiser).
At the Charles Hotel’s Regattabar on Saturday night, in a familiar haunt before a devoted audience, Fox unfolded a solo concert that reflected his current moods and thoughts and his read of the room. He appeared from the wings, imposing in black, with his signature white silk scarf – narrow, fringed — like a priest’s stole or rabbi’s tallit with tzitzit’. With little low-key banter, Fox sat to play the evening’s oldest selection, “Flow, My Tears”, a John Dowland lute transcription, in a calm force of measured arpeggios that favored the rich bass register of the new Steinway B that M. Steinert & Sons had especially shipped to the club. He segued into “Die Trauernde” (The Mourner, Brahms’ song cycle, Op. 7); its deep melody gathered ominous rumbles and escalated into room-filling cascades, then morphed into “Silver Fox”, a rising blues for pianist Horace Silver. Its lively habañera rhythm (of Afro-Cuban origin), heady coda, and sidelong references to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” evoked the windswept ravages Hurricane Irma had just wreaked on the Lesser Antilles, where Fox has many close friends.
Another medley touched on the political climate that Fox joshed “could get me deported.” His resounding Star-Spangled Banner, Fractured reimagines the Key anthem, drawing eloquently and explosively from Charles Ives’ playbook (swags of sustained arpeggios from Concord Sonata) with haunted echoes of Chopin’s Marche Funèbre. It evolved into The People United Will Not Be Defeated, a Chilean revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega bestowed with academic credentials via Frederick Rzewski’s roaring hour of variations. Fox crafted his own variations, with stylistic touches reminiscent of Oscar Peterson and Kenny Barron, that waxed majestic, pleading, conciliatory. On the final note, a cell phone chimed.
Fox engineered more musical updates, improvising brightly on a Bach Prelude in D Minor (WTC, Book II), playing gentle bluesy Variations on a Twelve Tone Row by Schoenberg. “Ausencias”, a bolero-slow Astor Piazzolla tango, unveiled haunting inner harmonies exposing introspective tensions, with an obbligato from the bartender’s cocktail shaker. In climax, Fox reverted to favored fireworks: Bach’s Two Part Invention in F-Major, then fused dazzlingly — dizzyingly — into his own “Coda Blues”. That merited a discreetly appreciative standing-oh.
Three brief encores ended the show, perfect snowflakes on Fox’s scarf: a slow, serious melody with arpeggiated bass; a lively blues with swaggering left hand countering an uplifting right cross (Oscar Peterson’s Hymn For Freedom; and a barreling boogie-woogie blues that ended with two shouts: one from the keyboard, another from the audience. Once again, the valiant Mr. Fox juggles Monk and Bach with accuracy and aplomb, plays legerdemain with giants, and escapes unscathed and lauded.
Fred Bouchard, lifelong music journalist for Downbeat Magazine, The New York City Jazz Record and other publications, has until recently contributed to Massachusetts Beverage Business and Fodor’s Boston. Now retired from teaching music journalism at Berklee College of Music, he pursues interests in writing on travel, nature and wine.