Contemporary piano isn't just one type of music. Like their predecessors through the centuries, today's composer/performers find the instrument an expressive partner with many voices. Here are three new releases that demonstrate the variety of approaches musicians from around the globe are taking:
KOSTIA; "Suite St. Petersburg" (Narada Lotus ND-61040). * * * 1/2Kostia, a Russian emigre born Konstantin Efimov who now lives in the United States, returns in spirit to his homeland with "Suite St. Petersburg." The playful title reflects both the pianist's classically influenced music and his affection for the city founded in the early 18th century by Peter the Great along the Neva River.
In a series of vignettes, with solo piano melodies from the soft and suggestive to the allegro-energetic, Kostia remembers nine sites and experiences. The opening "First Touch," for instance, is music-box delicate and "Sunrise" is gently colored, while "Winter Ride," recalling horse-drawn sleighrides of his youth, dashes off at full gallop, brisk and dramatic. Also appealing is the artful "Warm Stones," in which Kostia's flowing piano is joined by Paul Gmeinder's cello.
Kostia has been most noticeable before now as an orchestral arranger and occasional soloist on the Narada label's multi-artist projects, like "Wisdom of the Wood" and "A Childhood Remembered," and as a collaborator with David Arkenstone on the lively 1992 album "The Spirit of Olympia." But those who enjoy contemporary piano in all its variations may want to make better acquaintance with him via "Suite St. Petersburg," Kostia's impressive and beautiful solo debut.
DI BLASIO; "Piano de America 2" (Ariola-BMG 74321-20238-2). * * 1/2
"Piano de America 2" is eclectic in the extreme, presenting the Latinesque piano of Di Blasio (Raul to his friends) in just about every setting imaginable, from the implied quiet of the jungle (complete with bird calls) to the extravagance of a full orchestra (complete with chorus).
Most of the tunes are so big as to recall the lush closing credits for a '30s drama playing at the Bijou. Di Blasio's self-penned title number, for instance, manages to bring both Mancini and Yanni to mind. At the album's center is the sentimentally grand "Uno." It begins softly with flute and backing strings and adds Di Blasio's floating piano before none other than Julio Iglesias chimes in with sad Spanish lyrics; then the song becomes a virtual concerto in the Rachmaninoff vein, attempting to tug every heartstring in reach before its majestic conclusion.
Di Blasio, an Argentine now based in Miami, salutes his Latin roots on fancy covers of the Brazilian "Delicado-Tico Tico," giving the medley a bit of carnaval energy, and the Lecuona favorite "Malaguena." The peaceful yet rich "Verde Luz" specifically honors Puerto Rico, and the impressionistic-then-danceable "Pajaro Campana" remembers Paraguay.
Iglesias isn't the only vocal guest, either. The apparently heartbroken Mexican star Juan Gabriel wrote and sings "Hasta Que Te Conoci," and Wendy Ped-ersen is spotlighted on a light-jazzy remake (in English) of the chestnut "(What a) Wonderful World."
STEVE HAUN; "Birth of Dreams" (Ivory Moon Recordings, IMRD 6789). * * 1/2
Steve Haun writes and plays what is essentially "MOR piano" - sweet, glossy middle-of-the-road themes that would match up nicely with big-ballad lyrics but choose to convey pop emotions without words.
The title number "Birth of Dreams," for example, opens with tinkly bells, adds a piano melody and gradually swells, with saxophone, percussion and syntheszers, to a grand finish. "I Will Follow You" is less bombastic but just about as expansive in its piano-and-synth atmospherics. Saxes - performed by Stephen Watts and Nelson Rangell - co-star in songs like "Unspoken Love" and the Kenny G-ish "New Frontier."
Haun is more restrained on pretty songs like "In This Lifetime," backed by violin and cello, "Where Angels Dance" and a fairylike reprise of "Unspoken Love."