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Like Chestnut, Jacky Terrasson is regarded as a mainstream player because he’s somewhat boppish, but he stretches conventions, stuffing works as full of abstraction and angularity as he can without quite breaking them. And while Chestnut’s album has a jarringly unconventional premise, Terrasson’s new album, Mirror, is conservative in format: a solo performance of five originals, five standards, and one rock-era tune. Its title seems all too appropriate alongside Cyrus Plays Elvis—the discs are inversions of each other.
Yet set lists by themselves aren’t as revealing as they seem: Pianists from Thelonious Monk to Matthew Shipp have bent the standard and/or contemporary storehouses to their own idiosyncratic wills. Terrasson’s stated will regarding Mirror is to “give themes different spices,” emphasizing the many flavors of music that go onto jazz’s plate. In showing how each tune is unique, Terrasson brings his own distinct and alluring vision to the fore.
There are some commonalities among the tracks; Terrasson’s bebop roots consistently show through, for one thing. On “Cherokee,” a favorite tune of Charlie Parker’s, Terrasson follows Bird by improvising breakneck runs over the original chords (concluding with the melody). But even as he maintains that well-worn tradition, he subverts it, both by playing the piece in difficult 7/4 time and by keeping his right hand on the left side of the keyboard. Terrasson also turns Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” into a stormy bop workout, playing up its harmonic and rhythmic similarity to Bud Powell’s classic “Un Poco Loco,” and generates a similar bluster on his own title track.
Elsewhere, Terrasson’s lyricism dominates. He imbues Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” with a warmth and intimacy as an instrumental that would actually be handicapped by the sentimental lyrics. At the same time, sentimentality is exactly what he brings forth on “America the Beautiful,” which despite its troubled dissonance has a brightness that fits with World War II–era “home front” movies. Finally, after the dainty-yet-atonal “Go Round” closes the album, Terrasson delivers a quick “Happy Birthday” for his wife on a hidden track; its bittersweet quality is a surprise, but its sensitivity remains long after the last note dies away.
Mirror’s finest song is the lovely “Juvenile,” which Terrasson wrote as a teenager in 1984. Its theme is a delicate, Schumann-like romance in slow waltz form, though its harmonies take beautifully and distinctively jazzy turns. Between readings of that melody, Terrasson fires off salvos revealing his own virtuosic flash: drumlike rolls, bouncy and turbulent swing, arpeggios and crackling high notes that hit the ear like a threat or confrontation. Then, just as suddenly as they began, the fireworks melt away into the languid waltz again. The tune’s wild, emotional cycle is also a rich, deeply gratifying one.
With Mirror, Terrasson takes a step toward a more progressive school of playing, perhaps because there’s no rhythm section keeping him back. His loves of classical music and sonic adventure mingle freely with his firm bop grounding, allowing him to try out fresh tricks with form, harmony, and rhythm, even as he gives reverence to both the songs and the jazz lineage. The masterstroke of Mirror is that Terrasson hasn’t made a hard left turn, yet he still breaks away from the mainstream he’s long strained against.