James Fernando, The Lonely Sailor Review
by Nolan DeBuke
James Fernando is a youthful pianist who leans towards the jazz idiom, but his leanings are firmly held in a third-stream fashioning. Very studied and erudite, Fernando has received awards from Downbeat Magazine and the National Young Arts Foundation, including a nomination for the Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association. His accomplishments also include the Jazz Band of America, as well as the Berklee Summer Jazz Workshop. Fernando attended Berklee College of Music on scholarship, where he graduated summa cum laude after only three years of study.
Fernando’s bio touts his release The Lonely Sailor as a solo excursion “a blending of classical textures with jazz vocabulary, thus expanding the concept of jazz.” I agree; his offering is certainly a blending of jazz and classical with more of a focus on a modern classical sound. I am not convinced his lofty statement of expanding the concept of jazz is wholly accurate. I would, however, say it felt more like a collection of Chopin influenced piano compositions with moments of improvisation.
This does not take away from Fernando’s pianistic prowess, he certainly has chops to spare. What is unique about this solo recording is the technique of modern technology combined with an acoustic piano sound. Fernando employs the use of what he calls an “electronically augmented piano.” He explains, “to accomplish this, I placed contact microphones on the piano and ran the sound through my computer while controlling the software with a foot pedal. The effect is that the acoustic piano is always audible, but there are electronic elements that enter and exit throughout the course of the album.”
“The Journey Within” has a Chopin funeral march influence with its minor key and simple duple metre. Fernando’s touch on the piano is subtle, and he keeps the various melodies separated nicely. The flow of the composition is accentuated with his improvisations, although the written material is the highlight. The B section has a beautiful descending figure and a delightful counterpoint in the left-hand. The composition has interesting sections and impressive harmonic and melodic flow. Fernando is very adept at taking inspiration from classical composers and turning them into original statements.
“The Last Sunset at Sea” has a left-hand ostinato that Fernando colors with dazzling right-hand figures. The melody is Chopinesque with elements of New Age. In the latter part of the album, Fernando uses effects to augment the piano’s acoustic sound. For me, this was not an improvement, but more of an annoyance. His performance and control on the piano are excellent, especially his performance of the various melodic lines within his composition. The swirling noise in the background is not necessary and takes away from the beauty of the composition.
The Lonely Sailor is an adventurous recording, with a few missteps, but not enough to deter exploration. What one does discover is a burgeoning pianist with a mind towards pushing the envelope.