Law, piano, recorded 8.2.93

Listeners are likely to find pianist John Law's latest recording either mesmerising or stultifying - it's not a work meant to elicit lukewarm reactions.

Many Cadence readers may be familiar with Law via his work with Evan Parker, Jon Lloyd and Louis Moholo. (Law has also been leading his own quartet for years.) But the depth and breadth of Law's background in classical piano may not be as well known, and as it informs this disc, just as much as his work in the free jazz scene, it's worth noting. Law began his musical studies with his mother, attended the Royal Academy of Music and later studied with the renowned classical pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. Although Law chose to depart from the classical world as a performer, it has never departed from his playing or his musical conceptions. In other words, he's a player who knows how to fuse different traditions and come up with music that is all the richer and more rewarding because of its 'hybrid' background.

Talitha Cumi is, as stated in the full title, a group of improvisations centred around a 13th century version of the “Dies Irae”, the “Day of Wrath” segment of the Requiem Mass. (The first part of the album title is taken from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, verses 38-42, which recounts Jesus' resurrection of a young girl. All of the Gospels are written in Greek, and the phrase “talitha cumi” - meaning “Little girl I say to thee, arise” - is in Aramaic, the common language of first-century A.D. Palestine - a particularly homespun touch that is found nowhere else in the Gospels.) That is the solemnity of the “Dies Irae” that pervades this recording, not the joy over the raising of the dead child.

Although Law says that he didn't end up producing a set of variations on the main theme of the “Dies Irae”, there is common thematic material running throughout all of the "Meditations" (the “Interludes” are Law's way of giving the listener a break from the unremitting intensity of the “Meditations”). On the whole, Law succeeds very well in what he intended to do. Although these compositions don't swing per se, this is creative music at a level not often heard - Law's improvisational strategies, formidable technique and ability to conceptualise an extended improv as an organic whole are far removed from the self-indulgent meanderings of many practitioners of free improvisation on the piano.

Law's playing throughout Talitha Cumi is sonorous, full of rhythmic drive, strong percussive accents and unexpected surprises and shifts in direction - no stasis here! Since his jumping-off point is a modal composition, he improvises both modally and chromatically, and does so in a seamless fashion. The pieces are full of emotion, but “mood music” this isn't - any more than the full range of the Western canon (and bebop and beyond) are, for the most part, “mood music”, (moody music, yes, but that's light years away from treacly New Age piano ramblings or poor performances of Beethoven's piano sonatas). There are some decided links to John Cage's works for prepared piano here - Law's judicious use of techniques such as string damping and scraping (as well as remarkably effective pedalling) enable him to create sounds similar to those on prepared pianos. (Meditation 2 and Meditation 6 are replete with provocative sonic and emotional contrasts due to Law's manipulation of the entire piano.)

The recorded sound on Talitha Cumi is particularly fine. Law played a Steinway concert grand for the session and hired Simon Rhodes, a seasoned classical recording engineer, to oversee the taping. The result is, well, grand - Rhodes was able to catch a lot of nuances of the piano's sound that many other engineers would have missed or ignored altogether.

As stated above, there is no middle ground where this CD is concerned. But if you want to treat yourself to something entirely new (or if you already know the territory and want a fine guide to take you on yet another excursion) you could scarcely do better than delve into Law's highly impassioned work. One disc like this isn't enough to satisfy my taste for Law's playing - here's hoping he can get back into the studio for another solo album before long so that those who want to take up the challenge presented by his music have even more opportunity to do so.

Cadence  New York November 1995

John Laws Ausgangsmaterial ist dagegen ein klassischer Haushaltsartikel, das Dies Irae hat jeder in irgendeiner Form im Schrank. Jedoch nicht in der hier vorliegenden Form. John Law duerfte hierzulande eher unbekannt sein. Er ist klassisch ausgebildet, hat 1989 mit Paul Rogers und Mark Sanders seine erste Gruppe, Atlas, gegruendet, im Evan Parker Quartet, dem Louis Moholo Dedication Orchestra, einem Quartet mit Moholo, Barry Guy und Paul Dunmall, und nicht zuletzt mit dem Jon Lloyd Quartet gespielt.

Talitha Cumi ist ein pianistisches Meisterstueck. Der thematische Bogen traegt dunkle, ausgesprochen erzaehlerische Improvisationen, die in stupender und praeziser Technik scharf gestochen sind. Irgendwer hat mal gesagt, John Law klaenge wie Keith Tippett on acid. Wirklich erstaunlich ist allerdings, dass es John Law gelungen ist, neben Georg Graewe, Marylin Crispell, Irene Schweizer, Cecil Taylor, Chris Burn, Alexander von Schlippenbach (und einigen anderen) eini distinkte Stimme zu entwickeln. Wenn er mall eine CD fuer ECM aufnimmt wird er Star.

Markus Mueller  Jazzthethik  Germany  April 1995

Das “Dies Irae” bekanntlich liturgischer Bestandteil der roemischen Totenmesse und seit dem 13. Jahrhundert melodisch fixiert, von Mozart bis Verdi immer wieder in Requiems verarbeitet, von Berlioz, Liszt, Rachmaninov immer wieder zitathaft eingesetzt und insofern mit betraechtlichem kommunikativem Potential auegestattet, dient hier dem britischen Pianisten John Law als Rohmaterial fuer sogenannte “Meditationen”. Dabei setzt der einerseits bei Paul Badura-Skoda klassisch ausgebildete, andererseits durch die Zusammenarbeit mit Evan Parker und Louis Moholo in Free Music erfahrene Law diese beiden musikalischen Grundorientierungen in ein produktives Spannungsverhaeltnis: Das “Dies Irae” bleibt als strukturierendes Element immer vorhanden, ist Ausgangspunkt fuer Improvisationen, die bis zu schieren Kontrapunktik einerseits, zu donnernden Clustern andererseits gehen koennen. Law nutzt mit Wollust das Volumen seines grossen Steinway, vor allem dessen Basspotential. Eine duestere “Dies Irae”-Atmosphaere kann ich entgegen seinen eigenen Ausfuehrungen im Booklet nirgends hoeren; es sei denn, niedrige Notenwerte waeren automatisch mit “Totenmesse” etc. zu konnotieren. Im Gegenteil: Laws “Dies Irae” ist eine lebensspruehende, virtuose improvisatorische Tour de force durch die Moeglichkeit eines erstklassigen Fluegels.

Thomas Woertche  Jazz Podium    August 1995