Tall, gangly, bespectacled, and beaming, Leszek Mozdzer strolled onto the small stage at the Simons Center's Recital Hall on Sunday afternoon for the first of seven concerts as part of Spoleto's Wachovia Jazz Series. The virtuosic Polish pianist has the training to conjure melodic themes from classical works with grace and precision. He also has an adventurous spirit, instantly deconstructing and reworking such themes into something entirely new. As a solo performer, his game is all about innovation on the spot.
Dressed in a black suit, he briefly nodded and smiled at the audience before seating himself at a large Steinway piano and jumping into a wildly fast-paced improvisational exploration. It was the first of many rapid-fire pieces of the set.
Mozdzer's incredible technique dazzled the sold-out room from the start — especially the blazing dexterity of his right hand as he flailed and rolled through complicated runs and trills. His most percussive embellishments resembled the single-stroke roll of an orchestral mallet percussionist or jazz vibes man.
He seemed like a master musician in a big hurry, blasting through his first four pieces at high speed, pausing only briefly between them. His melodic phrasing and whimsical flourishes were passionate and beautifully executed. Even his occasionally dissonant, Monk-like off-notes accented things nicely.
Things sounded more aggressive, rumbly, and noisy after his first few turns, though. In his "prepared piano" moments (a la John Cage), Mozdzer employed his most innovative techniques, utilizing objects like water glasses, wood, blocks, random pieces of metal, and linen on the piano strings while he played. Some in the audience seemed genuinely startled and disturbed when Mozdzer kicked into noisy mode (two wide-eyed ladies in a row ahead of me looked at each other simultaneously with their hands to their mouths in identical "Oh, my!" expressions). Whispers and gasps were audible. Occasionally, the random whack or crash of a heavy object tossed into the piano cabinet made a few listeners jump.
Mozdzer's sound effects were either screechy and metallic or more subtle and eerie. Often, he picked an octave's worth of keys to manipulate, creating a sort of tonal duet between the regular piano sound and a tinny, distorted piano sound. Some attempts resembled the trebly buzz of a sitar, the feathery tone of a cello, the prickly ting of a harpsichord, or the unnerving splash of a tossed Nepalese nipple gong landing in a tool box. Other attempts deadened the strings to a point where each note sounded like a nylon-stringed guitar.
At times, certain passages sounded like a complex duet (or an angry debate) between a pianist and a percussionist.
For as much clatter going on at times, Mozdzer allowed things to dissipate beautifully, too. The decrescendo of a scratchy piece of glass or metal on a vibrating string added as much texture and suspense as the initial clang or strike.
Mozdzer's set included a few jazzier (but barely recognizable) renditions of pieces by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and (possibly) Bud Powell as well. Familiar melodies popped up within the din and rumble. If it wasn't for my guest, local musician Alan Brisendine, pointing out a few of them, I would have missed the fleeting themes altogether.
Brisendine — a pianist, reed player, and percussionist himself — commented on the arrangements afterwards, marveling at how far out they were, even for those familiar with the traditional arrangements. "Too many Spoletians expect purist performances with their ticket dollars," he said. "I think a few out there were a bit startled when they saw him throwing drink glasses on the strings and altering otherwise soothing new-age-ish melodies with screeching, nails-on-a-blackboard style effects, along with his curious muting technique ... was that a towel borrowed from his hotel?"
Touches of humor snuck in behind some of the mischief during the latter half of Mozdzer's set. One got the feeling that this Polish musician was fairly fluent in vintage American vaudeville and Carl Stalling-style cartoon music. Intense, aggressive, and unexpectedly comical at times, Mozdzer's unique performance might be one of the top highlights and most memorable events of the jazz series.