Chris Donnelly
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Chris Donnelly

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Here's what you might do with this brand new record: have someone place a velvet blindfold over your eyes, slip the record into a CD player, hit "play," adjust volume for comfort, then slide into a very comfortable chair and listen. Chances are one may be think that Bill Evans had come back to life and was playing a brand new version of "Very Early." Now, do not open your eyes yet—listen on. As the first track ends and "For the Drifters" begins, chances are you may believe that one is at a recital by Friedrich Gulda or Gabriel Faure—maybe even Egberto Gismonti. But, of course, you aren't. You are actually listening to Solo, the debut record by one of Canada's best-kept secrets: Chris Donnelly. There is no other way to describe the first experience or, in fact, the emotions that run through one's body with subsequent hearings of Donnelly's brilliant first offering.

Chris Donnelly is a pianist of unbridled talent, sublime technique and an impulse to adorn the sound of music. As an artist he appears to believe that the art of the solo piano is his true calling. Although he has played live in a number of settings—performing with a wide group of busy elder performing statesmen on Canada's jazz scenes—he has managed to stay focused on his holy grail: solo piano. The result is this fine and memorable record featuring seven brilliantly original compositions and four utterly original interpretations of classic songs by legendary jazz musicians—from the playful "Donna Lee - Variations" by Charlie Parker, to the majestic "Hallucinations," from the mercurial pen of Earl "Bud" Powell; from the Bill Evans' classic "Very Early" to the "Cinderella Medley - So This Is Love/A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes," from the pens of Hoffman, David and Livingston.

The music on this record also comprises Donnelly's own compositions. "For the Drifters" is a truly accomplished song, worthy of the pen of the great Walter Norris, while songs such as "Serenity" and "Winter's Waltz" are studies in controlled virtuosity. Perhaps the most memorable music of the set could well be the musical sketches that pay oblique musical tribute to modern composers and the love of his life. Two of these, were written with Erik Satie and Gabriel Faure; in mind. The third was created to reflect a space within the heart and for Donnelly's wife, who is also an opera singer. These three "Songs in B Minor" stand apart in the brilliance of their moody tonality and their melodic invention.

In many respects this hardly sounds like a first album, because Chris Donnelly's genius lies in his sophisticated maturity. Then there is the small matter of his superior technique, virtuosity and exceptional improvisational skills—all of these well beyond his years. It appears that Chris Donnelly can only be destined for the stellar regions of the world of music in general, and jazz in particular. -

"You can never be too amazing (sort of a show review"

At Cafe Paradiso on Saturday night, I was thoroughly enjoying pianist Chris Donnelly's music when another listener said to me: "He's too amazing."

How to take what was said? The ultimate in kudos? It certainly wasn't faint praise, but could it have been a qualified compliment? That listener also mentioned that Donnelly's playing put him in mind of classical music. The comparison's plausible, I suppose, but it could also have been a value judgement -- good or bad, for that matter.

That was second distinctive appraisal of the young Toronto pianist's playing that I'd heard in nearly as many days. As I wrote here, an Ottawa jazz fan a few days ago asked me whether Donnelly, who was back at Paradiso to perform solo as he had done a year previous, would "play anything different." The fan continued: "As good as his solo work is, I've heard it enough."

After listening to Donnelly yesterday night, it now strikes me that these comments say as much about the listener's esthetic perspectives as they do about Donnelly's music. Let me tell you about what I heard at Paradiso, so that we have a base line established.

I caught the latter two of Donnelly's three sets, which included:

A piece by the jazz-influenced Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin, which segued to one of Donnelly's originals
Isotope (saxophonist Joe Henderson's blues with some non-standard chord changes)
some pieces from Donnelly's Metamorphosis suite
Henry's Song and Dance, another Donnelly original

Baiao Malandro (an Egberto Gismonti demanding show-stopper -- here's a snippet of the composition, as executed last May by the Brazilian musical monster himself:)

So This is Love/ A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes (a medley of songs from Cinderella)
Very Early (Bill Evans)
Hymn to Freedom (Oscar Peterson)

Much of what Donnelly played had been painstakingly practiced. The Kapustin piece, for one. While Gismonti takes improvisational liberties when he plays his piano fantasias (that's what I gather from watching a few versions of Baiao Malandro on YouTube), Donnelly has committed himself to performing the version that appears on Gismonti's album Alma. Donnelly's substantial originals were richly detailed and intensely pianistic, more likely the result of considerable compositional travails -- not art that sprang into being like Athena from the head of Zeus. While Donnelly's originals are studded with improvised passages, they're far from the blowing vehicles that pianists stopping by Paradiso usually present.

You might argue that the amount of evident preparation and recitation involved in Donnelly's music makes it kindred to a classical music. (More superficially, you might also make the point that Donnelly's serious, dark suit-and-tie performance attire aligns him with classical pianists -- no untucked shirt-tails for him, unlike most other 20-something jazz musicians.)

But to those who might have a consequent misgiving or two ("not different enough," "not enough improvising") about Donnelly's music, here's my response.

I found there was sufficient differences between Donnelly's sets on Saturday and what I heard from him previously. Yes, he presented arrangements and transcriptions of material that I was familiar with, thanks to having heard his November 2008 Paradiso performance and his CD,Solo. But I had not heard him play Isotope before, or Hymn to Freedom, or his original that closed his second set. Meanwhile, his version of Very Early departed from the arrangement that opened his CD, and became -- if anything -- more of a showcase for improvisation.

I suspect that those who protest a "sameness" or "over-preparation" in Donnelly's playing are, to some degree, a bit deaf to what he is presenting, perhaps because they've made a judgment based on an enthusiasm for process over product. But as a result, they either miss -- or perhaps are overwhelmed by -- the sheer amount of meaningful content to Donnelly's playing, which is consistently compelling, ranges from minimalist to incredibly dense, and generally has a romantic, harmonically sophisticated cast.

I wonder too if Donnelly's sheer distinctiveness and eclecticism (the tapping of Doug Riley, Kapustin, Egberto Gismonti and Oscar Peterson for material, his dogged quest for solo piano mastery, his overt virtuosity) make him somehow -- and here's a loaded phrase -- less accessible than a more ordinary pianist, or a pianist playing in a trio setting.

Commenting on his repertoire here, Donnelly simply stated that he adopts material (with its attendant challenges) if it moves him. Well, the breadth of what floats his boat is striking, and if anything, one common thread might be nothing more and nothing less than excellence, both musical and instrumental, if such a separation can be made. Grant Donnelly that, and I think you'll overcome any reservations about "sameness" and make the effort to hear him perform when you can.

After Donnelly finished his third set on Saturday night, a woman came to his table to say a few words. She told him -- what else? -- "That was amazing."

Now that's more like it. - Ottawa Citizen

"Chris Donnelly debut CD, SOLO, reviewed by Stanley Fefferman"

To be frank, I have not cared to hear much jazz piano lately: I have been up to my ears in classical piano, particularly Marc- André Hamelin’s take on Haydn’s Piano Sonatas. So when Jane gave me Chris Donnelly’s debut album Solo, I heard the first cut—Bill Evans’ tune “Very Early”— as nothing more than sweet and low cocktail/dinner piano music. Very nice, but so what? I kept listening.

He developed the next chorus with a touch of swing. In the next chorus, Donnelly came in swinging a bit harder on an angle of discord, and in the next stepped into some surprising chord and tempo shifts. That’s when I started hearing Haydn, the master of surprise. It’s a fact that for a time Bill Evans “worked on Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak and Mozart, for “three hours a day,” so I wasn’t just hearing things.

Donnelly also has a thorough classical background. Like Haydn, Donnelly puts something new into every variation of this 5’17” second tune, and if you think that is solely due to Evans and not Donnelly, just keep listening to the other half a dozen Donnelly tunes on this album, and you will get it.

The album has three Donnelly originals entitled “Song in B Minor”, two of them homages to classical composers Satie and Fauré. Each is recognizably in the style of the composer, and both show the taste and wit of Donnelly as he modulates from classical to jazz feeling. Comes to jazz feeling, he works skillfully off two other great jazz masters, Bud Powell (”Hallucinations”), and Charlie Parker (”Donna Lee”). Both cuts show impressive keyboard chops as well as startling improvisational talent.

The Powell and Parker tunes are totally progressive and hip, not to say a little weird. In a cool show of class, Donnelly dares to go Disney and offers a “Cinderella Medley – “So This is Love/ A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” So pretty you want to believe it, and still very compelling jazz.

Smart, beautiful, and funny: a great listening date - Showtime Magazine

"Flying Solo"

For a 25-year-old, Toronto pianist Chris Donnelly has already played alongside some pretty impressive jazz musicians.

And he has more than held his own, based on the praise coming from the likes of Lina Allemano, Kirk MacDonald and Rich Perry, who use words like "fantastic, beautiful, distinctive" to describe his playing.

With those kinds of reviews, Donnelly could probably get steady work in the bands of any number of top Canadian players.

But he prefers to go his own way, and to do it alone.

"There something very satisfying about crafting a performance when you're the only one on the stage," he says. "It just seems to be the best vehicle for me to get out what I want to get out."

For Donnelly, that means stripping a composition down to its bare essentials to learn "what makes that song a song" and then re-creating it by playing it again and again until it evolves into something fresh and personal.

There's plenty of that on his dazzling debut album -- called Solo, naturally -- a collection of surprisingly mature original compositions mixed with brash takes on tunes from jazz giants Bill Evans, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.

The young pianist will feature tunes from the album when he makes his Ottawa solo debut on Friday at Café Paradiso.

The disc not only shows Donnelly's considerable skills on the keyboard, it also reveals an array of influences from both the jazz piano and classical worlds. And it displays his penchant for careful preparation.

"When I sit down to play the first note of my first tune I know what that note is going to be well in advance," he says.

"That's not saying I don't improvise, but before I do that I have to work everything out."

Sometimes Donnelly prepares a tune to the last note and the improvisation might come in the tempo or in the way he approaches the structure. In most cases, though, he leaves spaces for improvisation in and around the parts he has written out.

"Everyone has their own balance between what is prepared and what is improvised," he says. "There's no question I will change that balance over time, but at this point I need a lot of preparation."

That's not to imply his music lacks a sense of adventure. Far from it.

Donnelly's interpretation of the Charlie Parker classic Donna Lee is done as a series of variations that allow the pianist to attack the piece from several angles -- playfully, aggressively, buoyantly -- and show the saxophonist's composing prowess in a new light.

Donnelly says that while most of the tune was carefully prepared and written down, the sections he left for improvisation "work so well only because I had an overall vision for the piece."

Similarly, his version of the Bill Evans ballad Very Early, which he begins delicately and unexpectedly pushes to a quicker tempo, was purposefully plotted.

"I know how I will begin and I know how I will end, but in between I have left room for chance," he says. "Although there's a structure, the tune is never the same twice."

Donnelly says he was delighted to discover when listening to bonus tracks on a reissue of Evans's ground-breaking 1968 solo album, Alone, that the legendary pianist took a similar approach to his playing.

"He had a clear vision of what he wanted from a tune," he says. "He wasn't just sitting down and making this stuff up as he went along. That was a real eye-opener for me."

The concept, of course, is not unique to Evans. Donnelly lists other players known for their disciplined preparations -- Egberto Gismonti, Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett and Russian composer-arranger Nikolai Kasputin -- as influences.

Like many jazz pianists, Donnelly has received classical training. But unlike some others, his formal training was done alongside a parallel stream that encouraged improvisation.

At three, his parents enrolled him Humber College's Community Music School, where he began by clapping, dancing, singing, playing the xylophone and eventually the piano. Recognizing the youngster's talents, Donnelly's teacher recommended he also get formal training at the Royal Conservatory.

"I had these two things going on," he says, "but I definitely leaned more toward improvising. By the time I got to high school, my priority was practising tunes and improvising over them."

At 16, in his second-last year of high school, he realized that he didn't need to complete his final year to study music at University of Toronto. He took a few summer courses and was accepted a year early at U of T, where his reputation quickly flourished.

When he graduated with his master of music in jazz performance two years ago, he won the award for the student with the greatest potential to make an important contribution to music. In 2007, he finished second in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Florida and was selected a finalist in the Nottingham National Jazz Piano Competition in Britain earlier this year.

At 25, he's already teaching part-time on the U of T's music faculty. But his priority remains composing and performing. On his own.

He's not ruling out leading a band some day, but for now he has a list of projects -- writing music for a concept album inspired by the drawings of M.C. Escher, for instance -- that will keep him busy for a few years.

"What I'm doing with my career is kind of what I do with tunes -- strip them down to fundamentals," he says.

"One man and one piano is the way I learn about me as a performer and composer. Maybe one day I'll bring in a trumpeter or a guitarist and start in working in that direction."

Chris Donnelly performs Friday at 9:30 p.m. at Café Paradiso, 199 Bank St. 613-565-0657. No cover charge. - Ottawa Citizen

"Up-and-coming pianist a lone arranger"

With his debut album Solo having garnered a Juno nomination this year, pianist Chris Donnelly would seem to have proven himself for the moment.

But the Toronto native may use his performance at tonight's eighth annual National Jazz Awards, where he is nominated for both keyboardist and jazz recording, to silence skeptics.

"I've been debating whether to play an original, or `Donna Lee (Variations),'" said Donnelly of the timeless Charlie Parker tune he adapted on Solo.

"I've had comments from a few people – in good humour – who aren't convinced that I can actually play it. They thought there was some Pro Tools or overdubbing involved. Part of me wants to just put it down and say, `Okay, this is what it is.'"

Even the University of Toronto grad's decision to be unaccompanied on his first recording raised a few eyebrows.

"People think a logical choice would be to start with a trio, or quartet, or some kind of band," said the 25-year-old musician, who actually had to retool some of his originals to fit the album's solo context.

"I just did what I was comfortable with and what spoke to me. Solo piano is where I connect with the piano most and I seem to have a much stronger connection with listeners as well in that way."

Donnelly, who began playing as a toddler, balanced his interests in jazz and classical repertoire in programs at Humber College Community Music School and the Royal Conservatory of Music, respectively. Accordingly, his list of influences is diverse, including pianists/composers Fred Hersch, J.S. Bach, Egberto Gismonti and Glenn Gould, as well as trumpeter Miles Davis and saxists John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

"I don't sit down and say, `Okay, I'm going to combine jazz and classical,'" he said.

"I will listen to the music that I like – it doesn't matter if there's improvising or not, whether it's classical or jazz or whatever tradition – I'm going to study it and naturally it's going to come out in my playing in some form or another."

That flexibility comes in handy, given that his wife, Natalie Donnelly, is an opera singer whom he often accompanies.

"I'm her first call (pianist). I know some spouses don't like working together, but I love working with Natalie. She definitely brings a completely different perspective on learning music and listening to music.

"When I listen to music, I'm naturally drawn to the grooves, the rhythms or the chords, and maybe the melody. She's naturally drawn to lyrics. An entire song will go by and I won't know what the song is about. She'll know the story and all the inside metaphors and references. Through her, I've come to appreciate what goes on an opera stage."

The couple met at U of T's Faculty of Music and married in 2007. Their recreational playlist includes pop stars such as Dave Matthews, Stevie Wonder, Rihanna and Britney Spears – "for fun," Donnelly said.

"As well, every now and then Natalie will say, `Let's listen to La Bohème' and I'm very happy doing that."

Is she as eager to listen to Coltrane?

"No," Donnelly revealed with a laugh. "Maybe early Coltrane she would dig, but once you get into the Transition (1965) and Interstellar Space (1967) stuff, then it's starting to push her tastes." - The Toronto Star


Solo (2008)



“…one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.”
– Raul d’Gama Rose, All About Jazz

Chris Donnelly represents a new generation of jazz pianists, composers and improvisers dedicated to creating programs that are engaging, entertaining and educating. He is continually praised for his virtuosic performances, musicality, versatility and ability to captivate audiences.

In September 2008, Chris released his Juno-nominated, debut album with Alma Records called ‘Solo,’ featuring a blend of original material and arrangements of jazz standards. This also earned him nominations for ‘Best Recording of the Year’ and ‘Best Keyboardist of the Year’ from the 2009 National Jazz Awards. Other recent highlights include a tour of Western Canada in October 2008, performances at the Calgary and Medicine Hat Jazz Festivals and performances in various concert halls throughout Toronto including Roy Thomson Hall, CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, MacMillian Theatre, Walter Hall and the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. In April 2007, Chris performed at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville Florida where he received 2nd place as part of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. More recently, Chris performed in Nottingham, England where he was selected as one of four finalists in the 2008 Nottingham National Jazz Piano Competition.

Chris Donnelly holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the University of Toronto where he studied with David Braid, Gary Williamson, Paul Read, Kirk MacDonald Alexander Rapoport and Russell Hartenberger. Upon completing his Masters of Music in Jazz Performance at the University of Toronto, Chris was awarded The Tecumseh Sherman Rogers Graduating Award for students ‘deemed to have the greatest potential to make an important contribution to the field of music.’

In 2008, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded Chris with a grant to compose new music based on the works of graphic artist M.C Escher. With its completion, this project, entitled ‘Metamorphosis,’ will act as a follow-up to his debut recording and will be released in 2010. Chris is grateful for the continuing support from the Canada Council.

Chris is currently a professor at the University of Toronto and has previously worked as a faculty member at the Humber College Community Music School, Prairielands Jazz Camp and the National Music Camp of Canada.

“…listening to his music: one experiences intelligence, skillful execution, creativity and most importantly, an inventiveness that still acknowledges the jazz tradition.”
– David Braid