by Nick DeRiso
Mike McCarthy, a Phoenixville, Pennsyvania-based pianist, isn’t what he at first seems.
He begins here with a series of contemplative runs, punctuated ever so briefly by these twinkling asides, recalling nothing so much as the nostalgic sweep of Vince Guaraldi’s most memorable work. Like Guaraldi, “An Open” doesn’t appear to have the profundity or the swinging attitude of Bill Evans or Ramsey Lewis.
At first, that is.
Before long, McCarthy’s made it quite clear that the mainstream notions he opened This Piano with are but the beginning of a lengthy, endlessly intriguing journey through sound. When “An Open” eventually ascends into more boisterous interludes, McCarthy shows an impressive ability to move from miniature to more complex emotions – but delicately, with style. All of a sudden, an album that initially got into your heart has now suddenly gotten into your head, too.
The elegiac “Apart” then proves more distinctive still, as McCarthy displays a growing assertiveness. Energetic and yet at the same time refined, the tune expertly channels a deep sense of loss, but also of the treasured memories that remain. “The Peasant” continues in this tone of disquiet, as McCarthy explores a series of darker, exposed sentiments.
Meanwhile, McCarthy shows a facility for these engagingly lyrical passages in “All The Things,” playing in a manner that feels highly spontaneous, almost as if these thoughts have come rushing out as they cross his mind. Those flashes of ingenuity help keep This Piano, which might have eventually suffered a certain sameness for its being presented with McCarthy all alone, from turning into a too-staid affair.
Careful listeners will note McCarthy’s ability to move across an impressive range of feeling: “Comeback,” as its title suggests, evolves into an anthematic theme, while “New World” boasts this boundless optimism. “Not Because” is so graciously conveyed, and yet so gently uplifting, that at times it sounds like old-time gospel music. “Unbreakable” has a moving stoicism, perfectly capturing the fortitude needed to gird against life’s more difficult moments. “Beginning,” on the other hand, has such a fineness of structure that at times it seems almost see through, like the finest parchment.
“The King” then does something that This Piano hasn’t done much of: Swing, and hard. This is no knock on McCarthy’s earlier efforts, so much as recognition of his complete command. This impish display of humor is not only welcome, it underscores how little there is that McCarthy can’t do – and do well. “The Last Night” quickly returns the album to its initial setting, as McCarthy delves into tones and atmospheres more in keeping with “Apart” and “The Peasant” than what followed. But just when you think you have a bead on what he’s up to, McCarthy confounds expectations again: Plunging forward during the second third of the tune, he deftly sheds its after-hours feel for a series of emphatic thoughts.
“Scaling Sleep” goes on to expertly capture a sense of twilight poignancy, with McCarthy’s trickling runs mimicking the end over end feeling that accompanies those first moments of drifting off. “More Than” finds McCarthy roaming even further out, establishing a theme of quiet resilience and then searching all the way to the edge of his muse. Along this far horizon, there is a similar dancing quality to his approach, one that echoes “Scaling Sleep” but then becomes more insistent.
Finally, “Amethyst” brings This Piano to an impressive, heartfelt close. Again, McCarthy repays detailed attention, as he transformed a quiet rumination into a final passionate restatement of purpose.
This Piano, though it initially promised to be a breezy, uncomplicated set, proved to be anything but.