You know the impulse toddlers have when they sit in front of a piano keyboard for the first time: They just start pounding away, making up music as they go along.
You could call it, for lack of a better word, improvisation.
Piano teachers usually work to channel that initial impulse into practice regimens — learning scales, playing songs written by other people, playing more scales. That’s important, but sometimes that initial creative spark gets lost in the rote work.
Dana Reason has reason to be grateful for her first piano teacher, Florence O’Hagen. As Reason tells the story, O’Hagen never discouraged her young student — Reason started taking piano at age 3 — from making her own music.
“She valued that I was very creative,” Reason said. “I’d make up stuff all day long.”
It was a habit that came in handy — like the time when she was 13 years-old or so, and was performing a Bach piece in a competition.
“You can go off the rails in Bach very easily,” Reason said, and that’s what happened on this day.
She had two choices: Freeze up or keep on going, improvising in the Bach manner.
She kept on going: “I’m just going to make up Bach right now.” At performance’s end, “I just took a bow and held up my head.”
And took home second place from judges who surely knew that the “Bach” they had heard was not the “Bach” in the book, but doubtless admired the moxie that had kept the young pianist plugging away.
Nowadays, Reason has continued in that improvisational vein, as evidenced by her new release, “Angle of Vision.” The album is out on iTunes and other online sites now, but a CD release is scheduled for later this year.
Mid-valley audiences used to catching Reason perform in her “Between the Cracks” avant-garde performance series will find “Angle of Vision” surprisingly accessible: It features the pianist in a traditional jazz trio setting with Glen Moore (of the jazz ensemble Oregon) on bass and Peter Valsamis on drums.
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But don’t mistake accessibility for a lack of adventurousness.
In fact, “Angle of Reason” features forays into a variety of different musical genres, including “Moments with Clara,” which includes snippets of “Drie Romanzen,” a piece by 19th century pianist and composer Clara Schumann.
Schumann was better-known in her time as a pianist (and the spouse of Robert Schumann). She eventually ended up losing her confidence as a composer, in large part because she was a woman.
It’s an agony Reason can identify with, to some extent — especially as a female improviser in a field that tends to be dominated by men.
“When you choose music, or music chooses you,” she said, “the payoffs are not exactly super-great … It’s not a vocation for the weaker-stomached. It’s quite trying, even for the most successful.”
Other tracks on the album feature Reason and company’s takes on jazz standards like “God Bless the Child” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” — in a stripped-down take labeled just “Someday.” “Paris Tango” includes a bit of an Astor Piazzolla tune and takes a number of surprising twists and turns. Moore, the bassist, contributed a tune, “Night Club Skin.”
The relaxed setting of this recording, made in Corvallis with Sam and Paul Kincaid handling engineering duties, gives Reason the opportunity to mix and match bits of improvised melody with her compositional frameworks — and her musical colleagues prove more than adept at keeping up. In fact, one of the tracks, “On My Way,” with its spiritual sound, was a first take in which Moore and Valsamis had to keep pace.
For Reason, “Angle of Vision” offers a direct connection back to her parents: The piano she used to record the album was bought with money left her by her father, Ron, after his death.
And the accessible sound of the album is meant in some ways as a tribute to her mother, Anne, who is still rooting for Reason the musician. Reason remembers how Anne would drive 60-mile round trips to ferry her daughter to piano lessons and how, sometimes back at home, the mother would have this request:
“Would you play me something beautiful?“
“This,” said the daughter, “is an album that she can listen to.” •