I came to pianist/composer Dan Cray’s new CD Meridies because my current favorite young jazz player, Noah Preminger, plays sax on the disk, so now I have additional reason to be grateful to Mr. Preminger, as Meridies is a gem.
This is Cray’s first CD since relocating to NYC from his native Chicago. He confesses in the liner notes to some trepidation and despair over such a big move. If the music on Meridies is any indication, music lovers from now until the end of the world will be glad Cray moved.
Cray wears his influences lightly, though it’s worthwhile to mention Ahmad Jamal here, most especially in that both men rarely use their virtuosity for mere show, but always save it to serve the musical needs of the individual moment. If while listening to Meridies, you think “No one right now can play better than this,” you’d be correct, but I’m willing to bet that instead you’d say, “Right now, there’s nothing more beautiful than this playing.” Since I was drawn to the album by Preminger’s presence on it, I’d be remiss not to point out that throughout his playing is a marvel of beauty and invention.
Cray sets the tone for this session from the very start with one of two covers on the disc, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” from his film Modern Times (yes, Chaplin was a composer and the only Oscar he “won” was for best score for Limelight). Meridies is a work full to the brim of joy, but it’s a joy based firmly in the real, a joy that recognizes the omnipresence of sadness and pain. The joy of Meridies is not to laugh until you cry, but to laugh to keep from crying. Really, such joy is the only kind we can hope to have in this world and with Meridies Cray increases the net amount of it available to us here.
The pleasures of Cray’s pianism are many, but I want to cite two in particular: especially beautiful duet work with Preminger on “Amor Fati” and a breathtaking extended improvisation on “Winter Rose.” In both cases, Cray declines to settle for the usual or predictable and insists on seeing if he can surprise himself. I’m a former teacher and—like most of my colleagues—I often talked about the importance of tests and papers not to assess what the students knew, but to give them an opportunity to see what they thought by forcing them to articulate their ideas formally. I think at its best Meridies works this way: Cray is setting out to “see what he thinks” and we get to listen along.
If one of the greatest pleasures of jazz as a genre (opposed to classical or pop or rock or what have you) is that the improvisational foundation of a jazz performance allows us to listen in on a performer’s thought process (Keith Jarrett’s solo CDs being absolutely the zenith of this pattern), then we whose lives have been enriched by jazz are extraordinarily fortunate to be living while Cray is doing such beautiful and profound musical thinking.