GLAD CAFE, Glasgow, 1st June 2015:
' Stephen Grew hurls unrelenting, high-speed Conlon Nancarrow-style runs, his breathlessly impressive freneticism hinting at a sombre melody concealed somewhere deep within the army-of-crabs attack. Halfway through, he suspends flyers attached to parcel tape between his upright’s hammers and strings, creating an ad hoc prepared piano. This makes for an unusual but confrontationally flappy effect, as if a delirious percussionist accompanied him on a single broken tambourine. As a bonus finale, the four players come together as an impromptu quartet. As six-eighths of the ensemble Eight Thumbs, Welch, Reid and Marwick are familiar with improvising together, so Grew is tonight’s wild card. However, over four distinct movements – moody swells, awkward fidgeting, abrasive physicality and abstract stillness, respectively – he slots in seamlessly, rounding off a remarkably well-focused, instinctive and mutually responsive unit.'
-Matt Evans 2015
Stephen Grew- Grew Solo Piano, Lit and Phil Suite:
'The Lit and Phil Suite is both an odd and a totally obvious name for this solo piano offering from Stephen Grew. The Lit and Phil in question is, of course, the grand Literature and Philosophy Society Library in Newcastle, the largest independent library in the UK outside of London, and this CD was recorded on the Kawai grand piano possessed by the library, and which is, I presume, one of the few items that sadly can't be borrowed from this fine institution. The name is odd because well, perhaps for this reviewer at least, it conjures no useful associations when listening to the music, which is in itself pungent with myriad possible alternative monikers. But I digress.
But not totally. More than a 'suite', I'd say that this collection of recordings is more of a series of four complex virtuosos etudes. Stephen Grew specifies in his notes on the CD that these improvisations explore a technique called 'hand over hand' that he has been developing for more than 2 years. The technique utilises a pattern of rapid fire single notes in the left hand played over right hand chords, which are usually of intervals of a 5th or octave (8th) interval. The result is a kind of pulsating moto perpetuo, an iteration of complex, short patterns that is almost devoid of melodic motion but which is highly engaging to the ear. Like the etudes of Chopin, Grew's engagements with this work have elevated the subsequent flow of music to that of the virtuoso concert stage. A kind of exposition of an end point, of a line of enquiry, that produces answers and then informs in other ways the kind of questions from which it arose.
Grew's piano work has on more than occasion been compared to the automated, piano roll compositions of Conlan Nancarrow, and their astonishing swirls of rapid sound. This is not in many ways a pointless comparison, yes as a kind of rapid, calling-card summation we are in that area, but there is more to this than the pyrotechnics of a highly gifted technician. Grew is an improvising musician and his work in these sustained studies in possibility, sits right on the fault line of our common engagements with notions of composition, notation and improvisation. To the extent which, like the solo music of one of Grew's regular collaborators, saxophonist Evan Parker, the divisions between contemporary notated music and improvisation become almost meaningless. It is all just varied forms and approaches to composition, and here the issue of notation or improvsation is perhaps one of the most troubled but also to a great extent, a lesser important distinction.
On the evidence of this CD, Grew's work sits very elegantly also beside the solo piano works of American composer Elliott Carter (both have an engaging, subtle and introspective harmonic language) in their scorrevole approaches, and not without precedent in European piano improvisation traditions, perhaps with specific roots spreading towards players such as Fred Van Hove.
This is music that has little link to the traditions of jazz improvisation, and is (refreshingly) free of much by way of romanticism from any source. It is also (refreshingly) free of the disruption engagements of the surreal traditions. The sadness of this reviewer is that Grew's CD is not a glossy cased production sent my way by a management structure keen to display the talents of their artists. The CD comes in a single card folder with hand stuck on notes and a scissor cut picture. No distribution as such, apart from via Lit and Phil, as a recording, establishes Grew as a highly important originator in contemporary European improvisation. Those who already know his work will have guessed as much from his live work and on-going collaborations, but this CD deserves to carry his name and awareness of his music far beyond the extent to which it has already travelled. Grew as a musician deserves to be heard and cherished, and the time for that, on this evidence, is now.
The CD itself features masterly production by John McGovern, a real sound treat for the ears, that does justice to a release of great importance.'
-Peter Urpeth 2015
St Ann's Church, Manchester:
''Stephen Grew is one of Europe's most dedicated and imaginative pianists: Stephen's playing free from the constraints of traditional harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures, is a virtuosic tour -de -force of dynamic extremes, percussive effects and spontaneous atonal flourishes, by turn surprising, witty and breathtaking!'
-Manchester Jazz Festival 2011
Graham Clark & Stephen Grew, 'Improvisations': Series One:
“With a developed vocabulary from Bach to the present, violinists and pianists have a rich tradition to bring to free improvisation. On improvisations series one violinist Graham Clark and pianist Stephen Grew operate within a highly traditional definition of instrumental function and vocabulary. The style bridges high modernism and post-modernism, and you’d be excused for thinking at many points that you’d wandered into a recital devoted to newly discovered works by Bartok, Webern, and Stockhausen. That’s not the duo’s limitation but its character, a complex dialogue that makes little reference to the usual associations of improvised music. The 14 tracks are simply numbered, and there’s nothing here to suggest that Clark was once a member of the rock band Gong. When the two alternate percussive effects as accompaniment to one another on “No. 7,” or Grew uses some piano preparation on the “No. 13,” it actually comes as a surprise. What the music possesses is a narrow brilliance, by which I intend nothing negative. The numerous short tracks have the taut discipline and spiky clarity of etudes, while the nearly 20-minute “No. 9” extends that clarity of execution and design to a startlingly dense expressionism so purposefully executed that it sound like it’s being read very quickly. Grew’s work is new to me, but like Clark he’s an improviser of the first order.”
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