Textura weighs in on James Fernando’s The Lonely Sailor

James Fernando: The Lonely Sailor

The Lonely Sailor, pianist James Fernando’s debut solo album, doesn’t arrive with a revolutionary manifesto, yet in its own humble way the recording proposes an extremely forward-thinking approach to performance and composition; that it does so is in keeping with one of Fernando’s principles, the concept of expansion. Though he’s loved jazz since he began playing it as a sixth grader, he gradually came to identify conventions associated with the form that he wanted to move beyond, one example being the tendency for the left hand to play chords and the right melodies. An intense study of Chopin’s solo piano works led to a stylistic breakthrough of sorts where jazz and classical blend seamlessly, The Lonely Sailor presenting a wholly engrossing instantiation of the idea. The integration of the forms is realized exceptionally well on the recording, with the vocabularies of both in play at every moment.

Fernando’s prodigious abilities were recognized early, with the pianist receiving awards from Downbeat and the National Young Arts Foundation while in high school. Eventually attending and graduating from Berklee College of Music, Fernando continued building his reputation by touring with saxophonist Chris Cheek and eventually recording his debut album Extended Layover with Toronto-based vocalist/composer Mingjia Chen. All such experiences prepared him for tackling the solo project and the myriad challenges it posed.

On The Lonely Sailor, eight Fernando originals are woven into a fantasia-like suite. The musical development follows a narrative that has to do with notions of adventure and personal growth, specifically the idea of a solitary traveler encountering and eventually overcoming the kinds of life-threatening obstacles that would naturally arise during a sea voyage. The sailor’s entry into unusual territory is mirrored in real-time treatments the pianist applied that lend the music an electronic quality (specifically, he placed contact mics on the piano and altered the sound using software controlled by a foot pedal). Though the instrument is radically altered by the treatments, the acoustic essence of the piano remains intact, enough of it present to retain its identification as such.

A sombre melodic motif quickly establishes a lonely, plaintive mood in the opening title track, Fernando’s remarkable technical facility evident though deployed tastefully. As the motif is revisited, it begins to call to mind to the dark melodic character of Glass’s Metamorphosis; Fernando’s no minimalist, however, as evidenced by the density of the playing and the elaborateness of the display. Sometimes patterns swell into oceanic formations; in other places, Fernando reduces the music to a single-note melody, or one accompanied by simple chiming chords. As elegantly classical as the playing generally is, the spirit of jazz is felt as strongly.

As the recording advances, blues-styled progressions and jazz-inflected runs emerge that lend the material dramatic character, Fernando asserting his personality forcefully during such sequences. In “The Journey Within,” brilliant, waterfall-like cascades provide an ear-catching contrast to the haunting and introspective tone otherwise established. Four tracks in, “Ancient Lullaby” introduces the electronic dimension, with the piano initially shadowed by a grainy quality before shaking it off for an extended acoustic sequence. While such treatments threaten to overwhelm the piano during “Troubled Waters” and wage seeming war with it in “The Last Sunset at Sea,” they turn gentler for “Where the Grass is Greener,” which concludes the album on a note of shimmering, dreamlike reverie.

In truth, as much as the electronic dimension adds to The Lonely Sailor, the recording probably would be as gripping without it, given how compelling Fernando is as a composer and pianist. That it has been included doesn’t detract from the abundant pleasures the music affords, however. Listening to his seemingly effortless command of the piano provides no small amount of satisfaction, regardless of whether the playing’s modified by electronics or not.

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