Pianist Christina McMaster certainly does not lack ambition, nor innovation. She created her own record label MC|MASTER Records in order to release her debut album Pinks & Blues, the sold out launch of which at St James’s Theatre included a performance by a rapper. This reflects Christina’s eclectic approach, vision and energy in her music making (she has previously collaborated with London Fashion Week and is now joining forces with graduates of Central St Martin’s School of Art & Design).
Pinks & Blues presents contrasting music from two key soundworlds in American music in the 20th century: the industrial, pioneering spirit and the rise of the teeming metropolis (demonstrated in works such as Samuel Barber’s ‘Excursions’ and Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’), and Negro spirituals, Southern blues, smoky jazz clubs and the foot-stomping dance scene of New York City. The album also includes new commissions by two exciting young British composers, Freya Waley-Cohen and Richard Bullen, and on two tracks Christina is joined by Jay Phelps (trumpet), Sami Tammilehto (percussion) and Mark Lewandowski (double bass).
The album opens with the first of Barber’s ‘Excursions’, a work whose frenetic “perpetuum mobile” ostinato bassline suggests the fast-moving big city, replete with rattling metro trains, honking taxis and bustling crowds. But by track three, ‘Peace Piece’ by Bill Evans, we’re transported somewhere altogether more calm – the shady deck of a southern villa perhaps. There is a lightness of touch here which suggests both repose and an urging forward. The work is bookended by two Études by Ligeti which contain motifs redolent of Evans, also deftly played.
Richard Bullen’s ‘Scenes from a Deserted Jazz Club’ is highly atmospheric, at once smoochy and unsettling. It is followed by Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues’, another work of hypnotic, urgent energy immediately proceeded by the second of Barber’s Excursions, a languid blues number.
Freya Waley-Cohen’s ‘Southern Leaves’ opens with a figure reminiscent of a southern hymn tune which builds in intensity through increasingly plangent chords. It is meditative and dramatic, and provides a good foil for Gershwin’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ (from Porgy & Bess, which is of course set in the Deep South). Back to the urgency of the industrial city with Stephen Montague’s ‘Songs of Childhood’, while the album closes with another work by Montague’s, ‘Southern Lament: Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’, the traditional spiritual given a contemporary twist with fanfare-like repeated figures, strumming and plucking the piano’s strings directly, and a restful hymnlike section to close.
This imaginative selection neatly reflects Christina’s personal musical tastes and her eclectic approach to programming. The American theme ehich runs through the entire album ties together tracks which in another’s hands may seem disparate, but such is Christina’s expertise in moving seamlessly between the percussive and agitated and the meditative and soulful, she achieves a very satisfying and enjoyable whole. The more bluesy numbers have the requisite sense of time standing still with sensitive use of rubato and elastic tempi, while the upbeat, more mechanical works are precise, sprightly and crisply articulated. This album promises much more to come from this exciting and stylish young pianist.