New Detroit piano
From the December, 2015 issue
Over the years Detroit has contributed mightily to the development of jazz. And although people from the city and surrounding areas have created original approaches to just about every instrument, from the polyrhythmic drumming of Elvin Jones to the highly individual tenor saxophone approaches of Wardell Grey, Lucky Thompson, Yusef Lateef, Donald Walden, or James Carter, the piano takes a special place in this tradition.
The modern history of Detroit keyboard artistry began with a generation of musicians born around 1930. While there are many others one could mention, Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan are the two names that immediately come to mind, as well as Hank Jones, who was somewhat older. All three developed their talents in Detroit, moved to New York, and became internationally recognized masters of their instruments. But two women who never left the city also played a major role in this history: Gladys Wade Dillard, who instructed many of the youngsters who would grow up to be major pianists, and Bess Bonnier, who throughout her life was a major force in Motor City jazz as a teacher and performer.
This legacy lives on in the good hands of young pianists of today, best exemplified by Michael Malis. As a youngster he studied with Bonnier, then learned much from another Detroit piano master, Geri Allen, when she was teaching at U-M. Both of his teachers were versatile and sought inspiration from every kind of music. This kind of artistic openness, one that celebrates tradition as a floorboard for future creativity rather than as a closed nostalgic space, is key to understanding the imagination that propels Malis in his musical explorations.
Although still quite young, Malis has mastered an impressive repertoire, allowing him to play in traditional settings, accompanying singer Heather Black at the Ravens Club or working with the late Marcus Belgrave. On the other end of the spectrum, he has played completely improvised music at Edgefest. As a leader he works every week
at Cliff Bell's club in Detroit playing modern jazz standards as well as his own compositions--he has written music for plays and films, and all the tunes on his debut recording come from his pen.
Malis has been touring widely in support of his new CD, Lifted from the No of All Nothing, and he will be at Kerrytown Concert House on December 11 with his regular trio members, bassist Ben Rolston and drummer Stephen Boegehold. This is finely honed original modern jazz, played by a trio that has developed empathy and mutual understanding. The music is emotional but not sentimental, with shifting elements of rhythmic propulsion that give the music much of its drama and drive it forward, no matter the tempo.
Malis never sounds like someone else and already displays his own musical personality, characterized by a seamless continuum between compositional and instrumental qualities. This is how the Detroit jazz piano tradition is evolving for our times.
[Originally published in December, 2015.]
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