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Pianist Cory Smythe dissolves the lines between composition and improvisation with rigor

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A growing number of musicians have mastered both notated and improvised music, but few have done it with more skill, insight, and sensitivity than pianist Cory Smythe. He won a classical Grammy for his work with star violinist Hilary Hahn, but he’s also become an integral part of groups led by percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey—another thrilling denizen of this rarefied turf—that improvise within Morton Feldman-inspired constellations of sound. On Planktonic Finales (Intakt) Smythe continues to destroy any and all borders that might otherwise separate his interests. The record is an improvised session with bassist Stephan Crump and reedist Ingrid Laubrock characterized by a delicate compositional aesthetic, with forms, melodic exposition, and gauzy harmony shaped in real time. Their interactions are electric, but they exist to serve a larger purpose: threads function as magnetic motifs propelling each improvisation forward and giving it shape, dissolving lines between styles as well as between the composed and the improvised. More germane to this evening’s performance is Smythe’s new album Autotrophs (Not Art), a dazzling set of mostly solo works that situate heavy improvisation within a number of contexts. On “Blockchain” oblique chordal shards are spiked with jarring runs and eventually subsumed by electronic refractions, while “Lulu Lu St” layers vocoder sounds and electronic beats and “Handfall of Keys” turns the stride piano of Fats Waller into a house of mirrors; alto saxophonist Steve Lehman turns up on “Lucy-A” and “Lucy-B,” both honoring composer Alvin Lucier. Smythe’s compositions employ a wide range of conceits, none of which overstays its welcome, but they’re ultimately powered by his improvisational brio. Wonderful Chicago pianist Mabel Kwan will perform a short solo recital to begin the evening.   v

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