Octogenarian Boyd Lee Dunlop’s piano playing encompasses a wide swath of American popular music, the same stuff that jazz musicians have been bending to their needs for nigh onto a century. Blues riffs and pop chestnuts were nestled next to bebop sensibilities and bawdy house roots. However, the difference between what Dunlop does with the material and how others treat the same tunes has a lot to do with his approach, one honed in near obscurity and finally released to a wider audience via his debut album last year.
That CD (“Boyd’s Blues”) and the ensuing concert received favorable coverage in the New York Times and other media outlets, while his coming-out party – aided by bassist Sabu Adeyola and drummer Virgil Day – was held at Babeville’s Asbury Hall after the demand for tickets outstripped the capacity of the venue where it was originally scheduled.
“The Lake Reflections,” Dunlop’s current release, is a solo project and showcases the pianist’s improvisatory skills even more than his trio date did.
This isn’t to say his playing is flashy or technically astounding, but it does surprise with unconventional voicings that hint at possibilities others rarely explore.
Sunday afternoon’s CD release party in Asbury Hall found him playing on the same stage he graced for his earlier performance and before a sizable crowd. Easels stationed near the front of the stage held enlarged photos of Lake Erie (shot by Brendan Bannon) in various states of wintery dress. It was these pictures which Boyd used as a jumping off point for improvisations on the new album and at the concert.
Snippets of “St. James Infirmary,” “The Man I Love,” “Summertime,” “God Will Take Care of You,” “Sweet Marie” and others surfaced throughout the short set, but it was how the pianist led into and out of the familiar melodies, slowly mutating chord progressions before unraveling them and heading back home, that caused listeners to marvel. His left hand would comp as the right searched out phrases, sometimes hitting what Henry Cowell used to call “tone clusters” and, at other times, poking the one note that would act as a pivot point for the next musical journey.
Each sonic slice – because it’s difficult to call what he was playing “songs” – ended with him turning to the audience with palms facing upwards as if to say, “Wasn’t this cool?” Then, often before people finished applauding, Dunlop would turn back to his instrument and head off into another musical excursion.
At times a yelp would escape his lips for reasons known only to him, but it could have been satisfaction with what he was doing or a pain that he was determined to soldier through.
Dunlop was visibly tired after nearly an hour’s worth of playing, but he smiled as he stood up to leave the stage. He was saving energy to sign autographs and have pictures taken with his fans.
Boyd Lee Dunlop
Sunday afternoon in Asbury Hall at Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave.