To my mind, this album by the composer and pianist Micah Graves – Pawns, through its whimsical title – is one of the most exciting, most compelling sets of music that has come across my desk and I’ll tell you why. First of all it is music conceived using a dark palette, informed by breathtakingly vivid tone-textures made almost completely of the ink dark night. It is like a rhythmic dynamo that explodes out of Micah Graves The music is fairly races right out of the gate propelled by the combustion of Mr Graves’ piano and other keyboards. Science fiction is evoked – the kind of darkness that is evocative of Batman’s Gotham City in the most recent avatars of the character.
However, this is the kind of soundtrack you would find in a funky, 25th century Black Science Fiction movie; one that is blooded seemingly by narratives that span the grand dame of Black Science Fiction – Octavia E. Butler through to the ineffably brilliant Carl Hancock Rux. The repertoire is unrelentingly, racy, and it is played at a blistering heart-stopping pace almost through to the end. Yet it is not some manic affair. The melodies are eloquently – even profoundly – conceived. Harmonies – executed by Mr Graves together with the saxophonists Yessah Ali [tenor] and Dick Oatts [alto] and the elegant wail of Zach Lynch’s violin and Zach Fischer’s guitar – are built into the music like floating architectural edifices, constructed as if to hang in the air and the rumbling bass combines by the rattle, hum and incessant hiss of cymbals creates a surreal effect of steam keeping everything afloat.
Mr Graves is an excellent musician. His pieces are played with an almost insolent virtuosity combined with all of the elements of profound pianistic technique. Thus when the song “Spirit” unfolds in mighty cascades of arpeggios, these are not simply gestural, but entirely songful, written into the composition in a highly organic manner. Arabesques are not ornamental, but rhapsodic and ethereal, and serve to conjure a highly exotic landscape on which musical characters emerge and disappear in a ghostly manner. Thus Mr Graves succeeds in creating unique, future-perfect characters for the musical narratives, all of which [also] serves to paint an intricate musical architecture of this songful soundtrack to some dark, irresistibly seductive movie set sometime in the future.
Vocalising by Shafiq Hicks and Danielle Dougherty are added not to break up the instrumenalism but are a strategically introduced into the parabolic harmonic lines like a kind of poetic dewfall that rhymes and dances like some lyrically sophisticated hip-hop commentary, which is – again – organically built into the song; for example “Lost in time in Central Square”. With her vocals, Danielle Dougherty adds ethereal and airy beauty to the harmonic structures of “When we fall”. The saxophone and trumpet playing [of Roddy Cruz] adds a soaring and questing dimension to the taut emotional content of the music. Musicianship is uniformly and intuitively brilliant throughout. But there can be no doubt that the pianist is at the helm of affairs here and the whole musical expedition the rapid piston power of drummer Julian Miltenberger, fueled by the low growl of the bass by Zach Guise.
Track list – 1: Pawns; 2: Spirit; 3: Lost in time in Central Square; 4: Inner beast; 5: Fed up; 6: Odd times; 7: When we fall; 8: The Hague
Personnel – Micah Graves: piano, synthesizers and keyboards; Zach Guise: bass; Julian Miltenberger: drums; Robby Cruz: trumpet; Yessah Ali: tenor saxophone; Dick Oatts: alto saxophone; Zach Fischer: guitar; Zoe Lynch: violin; Shafiq Hicks: vocals; Danielle Dougherty: vocals
Released – 2022
Label – Independent
Runtime – 59:24