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Published: 2002/12/22
by Michael Lello

88 Keys to Tomorrow – Tom Constanten

Gaff Music 0511

"When was the last time you encountered stretto and inversion at the
same time?"

So asks Tom Constanten in the track-by track explanation he provides with
his latest release, the solo, all-instrumental, sometimes-live,
sometimes-studio 88 Keys To Tomorrow. Does TC assume that we know
what he's talking about? Maybe. But while you may need advanced musical
training to analyze some of this 21-track CD, you need little in the way of
technical background to enjoy it.

Constanten has managed to make much of his own high-brow ruminations – save
for a handful of avant-garde electronic experiments like "The Disco Delius
Banjo Bash" – remarkably accessible and performs majestically on classical
compositions from masters like Bach and Chopin. It also doesn't hurt his
cause with less sophisticated listeners (myself included) when he throws in
a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and tips his hat to his
early days with the Grateful Dead on "Cold Rain and Snow" and "Dark Star".

The album opens with "Let It Ring," a Baroque synthesizer excursion.
Unfortunately, it borders on treacle and falls somewhere between Yanni and
John Tesh. Thankfully, though, that undesirable, New Age sound only occurs
sparingly throughout the album. The second track, the aforementioned "Cold
Rain and Snow," also fights an uphill battle against a wedding-band synth
sound, but by the time Constanten launches into track three, "Chiclets" – performed on a Baldwin grand piano – we are treated to a warmer, more robust
and less robotic sound. In "Chiclets", Constanten flirts with some nifty,
dark, minor-key melodies which may remind some Deadheads of "Spanish Jam".

The breadth of the genres Constanten covers is impressive. "Any Face Card
Beats '10'" is a barrelhouse romp with some playful start-stop moments;
"Electronic Study #3" is just that: a noisy, looped experiment recorded
when Constanten was a student in 1962; "The Fat Angel" is a Donovan cover.

While Constanten's skills on all things keyed is apparent and
unquestionable, his most eloquent playing – at least on this album – occurs
when seated behind a real piano. The album's arguable high point is his
exquisite piano-only takes on Chopin"Waltz, Opus 69 #1" and "Nocturne,
Opus 9 #2". And credit Constanten with knowing how to order the tracks for
effect; the Chopin pieces are immediately followed with the Mayfield tune,
breaking things up nicely. After that, it's back to classical territory with
a joyful romp through Haydn's "Rondo from Sonata in E."

His own sonata, "Sonata Desaxificata," represents Constanten's newer take on
the piece commissioned in 1978 by harpsichordist Margaret Fabrizio. The
first movement, "Encodex Punctilious," and the second movement "Apocryphal
Way," show off Constanten's compositional chops and sound much more Medieval
than modern.

"How many are wondering when I might play another Grateful Dead number?"
Constanten asks the Somerville, Massachusetts., crowd on track 20. After
considerable applause, he says "I thought so" and launches into "Dark Star."

"Dark Star," the multi-winged beast responsible for some of the Dead's most
layered, complex playing, is an impressive feat to pull off as a solo
performer. And rest assured, Constanten does not dumb down the material.
Each layer is accounted for, with the pianist often playing counterpoint to
his own melody lines. After swinging through the introduction and the first
verse, Constanten feels his way through a delicate "solo". (It's odd to call
a section a solo when there is but one performer, but at this point he
momentarily abandons the song's multi-layered structure and in essence takes
a solo.) He trills up and down the piano's register, toys with some low-end
dissonance, and launches back into the "Dark Star" theme, to thunderous
applause. Witnessing Constanten venture far afield and land on his feet must
have been something to see, hear and feel at the Somerville Theater, but it
does not lose much in the recorded translation.

The thing about this version of "Dark Star" is you would never guess it was
a song by a psychedelic rock group. A jazz pianist or classical stylist,
maybe. This is a tribute not only to the Dead's ability to write outside
their idiom but also Constanten's ability to make the song majestically

Constanten does not trade too heavily on his connection to the Dead here – only "Cold Rain and Snow" and "Dark Star" are Dead tunes – but the final track, the sprightly "Dejavalse" does bear at least one degree of separation from his former group. This live take is the show-closer from a 1990 Atlanta date with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The track also closes 88 Keys To Tomorrow, and does so with understated, lyrical beauty.

Constanten seems at home with the simple melody of Dejavalse, just as
he seems at home toying with time signatures, modes and experimental ideas
that would go over most of our heads. The album is a little bit of
everything, but thanks to its pacing and tastefulness, itnever too much
of one thing at a time. Covering various stages of Constanten's career and
different incarnations of his muse, it serves as a sort of unofficial
retrospective of a somewhat unappreciated but nonetheless expressive and
brilliant artist.

It'd be wonderful to call Constanten light years ahead of his
contemporaries. But with the immeasurable skills and various styles he
encompasses – all brought to life on 88 Keys to Tomorrow – it'd be
more appropriate to say he has no contemporaries.

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