Kris Becker, Inventions

Kris Becker, Inventions

To be honest, I feel a little weird here, attempting to coherently talk about pianist/keyboardist Kris Becker’s debut full-length, Inventions. This sounds a little strange, but I generally try to review stuff that I know, or at least have some kind of passing familiarity with; I don’t mean that I only ever review bands I’ve already heard, mind you, but that I tend to review music that falls into genres I know and feel at least quasi-knowledgeable talking about.

Which leaves me in a bit of a bad place when it comes to Inventions, because the two musical genres Becker’s album mostly encompasses (and keep an eye on that “mostly”) are jazz and classical…which are the two genres I know the absolute least about. My seven-year-old daughter knows more about classical music than I do — when she was three, she could pick out Vivaldi by ear, which is something I can’t do even now — and my only real exposure to the genre in any form has either been through movie soundtracks and the one music-theory class I took in college. The latter required me to go see several performances, the only one of which I can recall at all is Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” (aka, “The Meat Song”).

As for jazz, I’ve tried and tried to become more knowledgeable and more into the genre as a whole, but frankly, it’s just never “clicked” with me. I like some early, Dixieland-style stuff, but when it gets to bebop and beyond, I tend to tune out. I can appreciate the musicianship of it, sure, but it’s the same way I can appreciate that an Olympic athlete can run hurdles, something I will never, ever, ever be able to do — to me, a lot of more modern jazz musicians are like these musical athletes, people who can incredible things with their instruments but who I can’t really relate to beyond going, “wow, that’s neat.”

All of which is to say that when it comes to music like the bulk of Inventions, I’m essentially an idiot (or, at least, even more of an idiot than usual). I only know a smattering of the background and have very little clue what any of the terms mean (a heartfelt thank-you to Wikipedia for enlightening me as to what a “fantasia” is, beyond being a famous Disney film).

Now, I can’t deny Becker’s skill, either as a composer or a player; the guy’s just flat-out amazing. He is a virtuoso on the keys, no question — at least twice per track, my jaw drops just trying to fathom what the hell he’s doing with his fingers. And unlike my admittedly stupid view of modern jazz in general, when he plays I can definitely feel what he’s trying to get across, at least some of the time.

With Inventions, by the way, the pianist seems intent on proving that he can do pretty much anything he feels like doing, from classical to Latin jazz to rock, and he’s not wrong — musically speaking, he scarcely misses a step anywhere. The downside is that the album as a whole — which Becker divides up into “Rock,” “Jazz,” “Nu-classical,” “Four Curiosities,” “Inventions,” “Postludes,” and “Variations and Fantasias on a Somewhat Serious Theme” — actually feels more like a portfolio than a real “album,” with Becker doing his damnedest to demonstrate the breadth of what he can do for…well, who, really? I can’t escape the feeling that the album’s meant for some panel of high-flying faculty at a conservatory somewhere.

The other downside, ironically, comes in the section that hits the musical genre I’m most familiar with out of the bunch, the two-song “Rock” part of the disc. Becker starts off with “Feel The Truth,” which isn’t bad, musically, just mid-tempo, somewhat Adult Alternative-sounding rock w/pianos. The lyrics, however, come off as trite, deep-thinking pseudo-poetry, and that kind of thing always rubs me the wrong way, unfortunately. The song gets far, far better about a minute from the end, though, when Becker grabs hold of the Hammond and proceeds to go berserk, leading the band through a ’60s-tinged, soul/funk romp that probably wouldn’t have been out of place as a Stevie Wonder B-side back in the day — seriously, skip the pop-rock; I want more of that, right there.

“Try” works better, in a quieter, more subdued fashion. As it rolls along, it takes on a bit of a Floydian prog-rock feel, although never so much that it overwhelms things or feels noodly, and then it segues surprisingly neatly into the “Jazz” section, which Becker kicks off with the smooth, polished, samba-like Latin vibe of “In Due Time.” As hinted at above, I wouldn’t call myself a jazz fan by any stretch of the imagination, but hell, I’m liking this. Even better is followup track “If Ever Two Were One (Alt. Take),” which is sweet and sultry and warm vocal jazz that works beautifully, due in large part to the gorgeous vocal stylings of fellow Rice grad Sarah Welch Fuselier.

I was initially a bit confused, mind you — why put the alternate take of the song first? As soon as the “Nu-classical” section hits, however, it all suddenly makes sense. The nu-classical original version of “If Ever Two Were One” (which apparently takes its lyrics from the poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” by early American poet Anne Bradstreet, which explains the “doth”s and “aught”s) drops the jazz feel entirely in favor of a mellifluous, intricate quasi-classical composition that comes off like Tori Amos — or, more appropriately, Sarah Brightman — doing a dramatic rendition of the poem in question. It’s not something I’d listen to regularly, but it’s definitely intriguing.

Speaking of Tori Amos, “Fanfare For Life” dwells firmly in that same territory, sounding (to me, at least) like it could be one of Amos’s instrumentals. At times, too, it sounds like part of the score for some serious, beautiful-yet-dramatic movie, to be played during some scene where the protagonist is making their way through the snow to a destination they may never reach.

From the start of Becker’s “Four Curiosities” section, Inventions gets harder and harder for me to follow. The “Curiosities” themselves are impressive, particularly the stately, deliberate-sounding “Passacaglia” or the quiet, restrained “Frozen Heat,” which strikes me as almost a bluesy tune a la the Bessie Smith classic “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”; I can almost imagine this being played as part of a musical, preferably with Nina Simone singing over the top of it. Despite its name, “Groovin'” is more frantic than anything else, making me think of those old black-and-white films from the ’50s with titles like “Industry!” that showed factories working and engines running and people on assembly lines.

Then come the album’s namesake, a series of six “inventions” — the term apparently refers to short keyboard compositions that are typically used as exercises for learning how to compose music. The first, “Invention in B Major,” is like music for an 18th-century drawing room, the kind I’d expect to hear played on a harpsichord or something rather than a piano, and it’s neat to hear, definitely. “Invention in D Lydian” is more melancholy and sweet, while the “D Dorian” invention is urgent and the “G Minor” is somber, almost funereal at points. After a while, though, all of the inventions blend somewhat together for me, despite the variations in key and overall tone; with the longest being only 2:02, they don’t linger long enough to make that much of an impression.

The “Postludes” offer up a somewhat more modern-sounding take on the same general idea, with a series of six relatively short compositions that let Becker stretch out and do some more imaginative things, things that sometimes come near to crossing the line between “straight” classical and jazz. I particularly enjoyed “Betrayal,” with its murky, dark motif, the rumbling, aptly train-like piece “The Rhythm Express,” and “The Foibles Of Pipersnatch,” which is playful while remaining a little dark and foreboding.

After that, unfortunately, I get lost in a hurry. The last — and largest — section of Inventions is the “Variations and Fantasias on a Somewhat Serious Theme” section, and by a few variations in, my head’s spinning, unable to keep straight what I’m listening to when. It is neat to hear the same general theme given different treatments, particularly “Variation 3 (Misterioso)” and the excellent, propulsive “Variation 9 (Polonaise minimalistica),” but by and large I couldn’t tell you which was playing at any given time.

That said, when taken all together, Inventions is an impressive body of work, a monumental compilation of what I’m guessing are Becker’s best and most innovative compositions. I’m still not entirely sold on the guy as a rock frontman (sorry, Kris!), but from what my untrained ears can get out of this album, he’s one hell of a composer. I never thought I’d say it, but I’ll definitely be listening again, and probably again and again after that, trying to catch each one of those subtle nuances Becker’s woven throughout the disc. Maybe it’s time I gave classical music and jazz in general a second look…

[Kris Becker & The Frozen Heat are playing 7/1/11 at Dean’s, along with Vertigo Blue & Heidi Massin.]
(Frozen Heat Records --; Kris Becker --; Kris Becker (Myspace) --; Kris Becker (Facebook) --
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Review by . Review posted Friday, July 1st, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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One Response to “Kris Becker, Inventions

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Paris Falls + Grand Child + Anarchitex + Prison Soup + Kris Becker (Reviewed!) + Faster Pussycat + More on October 24th, 2011 at 9:37 am

    […] I reviewed the guy’s debut full-length, Inventions, recently, so check that out right over here. It’s not all my cup of tea, but it’s pretty mesmerizing stuff, […]

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