Joel Forrester: Silents’ Buzz

(September, 2010)

As a precariously perched Buster Keaton see-sawed back and forth on a ladder tipped sideways over a fence, a cluster of cops shuffled beneath him, shaking their batons and gesturing furiously. And beneath the flickering grey and white light of the 1922 silent film “Cops” was a solo piano, its player using a combination of stride and bop elements and his own sense of comedy to propel each character’s actions into full color, three-dimensional swing.

In New York, which Joel Forrester has called home since the early ‘70s, the 64-year-old pianist’s name is synonymous with the horn-heavy Microscopic Septet he co-led from 1980-1992 with Philip Johnston. A prolific composer, his estimated 1200 works of music include “Fresh Air,” the theme of Terry Gross’ NPR show and reportedly the most-played jazz tune in the history of American radio. A few years ago, Gross introduced the Micros by lauding their ability to recall “the fun and liveliness of early jazz, but also the harmonic and rhythmic adventurousness of modern music.” While Forrester and Johnston shared composing duties in the band, the pianist’s solo work is similarly both accessible and experimental, the latter quality coming in part from his study with Thelonius Monk, whom he credits with having given his music a “searching quality, harmonically.”

But in Paris, Forrester’s reputation hinges on his solo performances set to silent films. He’s played such programs at the Louvre, the Pompidou Center and the Musee D’Orsay, and on one warm evening in May, he held court in New York’s Gershwin Hotel, where his understated conversational humor matched his ability to tell a funny story through music.

Case in point: “Lunacy,” the opening number for the evening’s two-part program of music written for film, followed by an improvised solo piano performance set to a series of movies.

“I wrote this around 1973 in San Francisco where, for my sins, I was playing to silent movies under the name Dr. Real,” Forrester told the audience in a voice with the theatrical timing of a jazz-minded Garrison Keillor.

He waited a beat until someone yelped in laughter, then offered a deadpan “I’m sorry.” (Despite the apparent pun, Dr. Real was a character in a novel he wrote while in prison for draft resistance. He adopted a pseudonym as part of his parole requirements.

As “Lunacy” opened, a dirge-like cadence carried the lower register, punctuated every few bars with a purposeful plunk from Forrester’s right hand. The interplay evoked a teasing refrain, and you could almost imagine a bird knocking the hat off Charlie Chaplin’s head in time to the tune. As the melody developed, listeners’ imaginations began to do for the compositions what Buster Keaton would do in the second half of the show.

“That was the idea,” Forrester said a week later between bites of a burger before a trio gig on the Upper East Side. He explained that introducing the concept of jazz and silent film with the music alone opens the listeners’ minds to the concept. “If I’m really doing my job, people forget that I’m playing and are just into the dual experience.”

But when he performed music to Keaton’s “Cops,” a Tim Burton-esque piece called “The Mascot” and a dark comedy called “Haunted Spooks,” the sound and visual elements of the experience were not dual, but seamless.

Even Forrester’s musical comedy is in line with what he’s learned from studying the cinema. Take Harold Lloyd, the star of “Haunted Spooks.” “He sets up his visual jokes … in advance,” the pianist says. “Seemingly random actions end up causing the thing that’s really funny.”

He points to a series of comedic scenes based on the protagonist’s ineffectual suicide attempts. “It’s a technique of building a climax that’s in itself deflationary. I got that from him and use it all the time in music.”


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