Seeing a solo project emerge from an artist known previously for making music with a group might initially seem more like a move of regression than that of progression. After all, the reduction of instrumental parts from many to one is, in a fundamental way, a lessening of sonic offerings. However for Torsten Jensen of modern jazz trio Hexcut (whose EP was reviewed last August), where the progression on his new solo EP Progressions comes through, isn’t in the straightforward number of musical parts on the record but in the expansion of how the Bristol based pianist utilizes the personality and potential of his instrument.
An album of a mere five tracks, Progressions also presents as somewhat minimized in its overall offerings. But at over 40 minutes of total run time, Jensen’s compositions are the kind that prompt steady contemplation and reveal a steady unfurling of complex phrasing and-or performance that is deceptively simple at first glance. The immediately intriguing set pair of “Glass I” and “Glass II” in the track list, are paramount examples of the sonic character and artistic nuance that makes Progressions stand out as a strong record.
Start with the former and a single note motif parades through the piece’s opening 40 seconds – quite the long length of time for such a singular impression to reign. Still, Jensen doesn’t simply write in a rhythmic pattern to sustain the mid-register one note. An uptempo, syncopated, bouncing rhythm is combined with Jensen’s own implementation of performance subtlety in ebbs and flows of arm weight, strike force, and accent application to deliver a dramatically clear display of dynamic shaping. While classical music tends to embrace, utilize, and showcase the range of dynamic contrast more than its pop or rock counterparts (due heavily to the assortment of timbres found orchestral arrangements), it’s either willfully diminished or at best, harder to take note of when absent the flourish of tonal colors available in a larger chamber group or orchestral assembly.
Add to that an acknowledgement that Jensen’s appreciation of dynamic variance also bucks the trend of heavily compressed audio that tends to obscure audible contrast and Progressions has a lot of small but meaningful artistry going for it. Then to see how Jensen expands on that foundation of nuance with more inclusion of the damper pedal and reverb on “Glass II” is basically like an upgrade from the delightful but basic package to the familiar but deluxe version. In either, the building up from a single element to layers of refined pulsation, and intricately weaved part layering, ultimately to a beautifully constructed ostinato, makes for a highlight set on the album.
The midway point, interestingly titled “Turnstone” plays close to this kind of illusory approach to straightforward melodic motifs but rather than a gradual build, creates shifting senses of downbeat and time with the ambient sound of a dribbling ball on asphalt that comes to temporarily act like a click track. However, instead of taking away from the piano’s melody in a sonically distracting manner, the steady smacking at the piece’s start helps to keep the Jensen’s return to clever deceptions in a grounded place where listeners can always return to the basic count and stay with the beat. The juxtaposition between the see-sawing of pitches going up and down while where each upper pitch and lower pitch falls on or off the downbeat, makes for a multi-layered tease toward the music’s pulse.
The end result again, is a noteworthy sense of complexity, without needing to resort to deliberately complicated melodic phrasing. In other words, with Progressions, Jensen proves himself a shrewd, adeptly skilled composer who can create the feeling of more with less, and without having to over inflate his compositions with performative fluff in order to provide evidence thereof. By the time the album reaches the “Improv” finale, Jensen takes listeners to a much more direct place, playing through a nine minute conclusion that traverses a wide valley of dynamic range, letting the melody roam as expected, while maintaining an easily detectable primary phrase that recurs in different places. It’s not the most compositionally flashy of the album but by then both Jensen and listeners have somewhat earned the landing space to just simply enjoy a well played piano piece for what it advertises itself to be.
Progressions is a tightly knit, cleanly packaged solo effort and it serves as a bold display of Jensen’s skill as a player and ingenuity as a composer. Making due with little is almost like the theme of what folks have had to do throughout this year so to see a sentiment of such play out so well with this album only adds to its overall relatable pleasure.
Progressions is available now.
Find it on Bandcamp.
Keep connected with Torsten Jensen through his official Facebook page.