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Music Reviews

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Craig Armstrong
Piano Works
Sanctuary Records Group

Rating: 8.5/10 ?

October 1, 2004
Sans regard to style or texture, what Craig Armstrong's newest release, Piano Works, comes down to is the idiosyncratic connection between the pianist and his tool of work. Throughout his career, Armstrong has been involved in the composing and arranging of classical pieces, film scores, solo albums and collaborations (Madonna, U2, Massive Attack). However, when you listen to his creations, you can only think about the effect that the natural flow of his soul impresses on each minute detail of the composition.

Some have dubbed Piano Works as a film score because of its connection to the film of the same name that was written after the album was composed. The 44-year-old pianist/composer has compiled a working credit of film scores - "The Bone Collector," Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge," and just recently "Ray." In part, the album also nods admirably toward serene visual scene-unfolding essences in the likes of Thomas Newman ("American Beauty" and "Shawshank Redemption").

Piano Works is an entity unto itself, though; there is no need for a film to make this collection enjoyable. The album has a chameleon-like feel in its overall songwriting form, with some compositions becoming invisible, blending into a background, and others catching the ear from the start. For Armstrong, the creation of such a duality in character was intentional.

Some of the compositions use electronic effects (from a program called "Pluggo," which allows the creator to electronically improvise in real time) to take the piano out of its natural sound element, an interventional guise that is not meant for backdrop. The album acts as a realm in which ideas and emotions of its listeners can run wild. For example, a slow-building minor chord sonata could be envisioned as portraying the redemption of a struggling individual or the work of a sad strain of depression.

Mainly, this collection of compositions is a toying of interpretations (what Armstrong has called 'selective improvisations'); an attempt to further a sound that is beautiful. Armstrong's expansive knowledge of classical arrangement comes from a life built around arts and music -he studied violin and composition at the Royal Academy in London, was resident composer at the Tron Theater in Glasgow, and has commissioned arrangements for many orchestras throughout Europe.

"Weather Storm" is a fine example for the selective improvisation style of Piano Works. The composition begins with a sustained crash of high keys on the piano. Notes spiral up and down the keys like an empty plastic bag in the wind, and only Armstrong's fingertips know what they will play in the next split second. The composed sound is similar to that of chimes in a violent gale. Suddenly, the sound is brought to a halt and a slow, subdued march melody takes over. One can almost visualize a scene in which a stern character is walking down the street with a veil of disappointment surrounding his/her entire being. Dark notes of the cloudy sky hold a rigid disposition against fluttering high notes which are trying to bring optimism to the upset character like excited chirping birds. As the song advances, chords are arranged in a tonally medium range to show melding of the two emotions. Eventually a twisting of high notes closes out the visualization in a contrast to the introduction of the song.

Much of this album conjures up an aspect of imagery, whether for a particular scene, smell or touch. Structural similarity can be found in the playing of Rachel Grimes of Rachel's. Throughout Piano Works, there are stylistic choices made to incorporate electronic effects (the sweetly frantic "Fugue"), a sound clip or two ("Childhood 2") and a heartfelt ballad ("Angelina"), but the overall effect is emotionally personal. With Armstrong's passionate style and experience, the music is a case study in excellence. Sans regard to detailed criticism, Piano Works is what Armstrong's soul always intended: beautiful sound.

Reviewed by Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other reviews by Josh Zanger



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