Chicago born pianist Steven Graff has performed and recorded many piano works by fellow Chicago composer John Carbon (b.1951), who I have to say was new to me. On his latest recording, he plays three sets of pieces, the longest, ‘Astro Dogs: 12 Zodiacal Pieces’ giving the disc its title. Before that come two shorter sets, the first of which, Madeleines, inspired by a trip to France with his sister when he was a student. As the name would suggest, these five short pieces are atmospheric, evoking memories and moods.
There is a wistful improvisatory, almost Chopinesque feel to the opening ‘Mémoire triste dans un café’, and a darker, more funereal nostalgia in ‘François et ses yeux dangereux’, remembering the death of a boy they had met in Paris. The final piece, ‘Madeleine déteste les devoirs’, on the other hand, has a driving rhythm, with disobediently boisterous hints at children’s songs. The three Impromptus, clearly inspired by the pieces of the same name by Chopin and Schubert in particular, are dreamy and again nostalgia features highly, particularly in the wandering second. The third however is much livelier, with its almost mechanical syncopated dance reminding one of Prokofiev or Kabalevsky. Astro Dogs apparently follows an earlier guitar suite, Astro Cats (of course), and in the drily humorous notes, Carbon explains how each piece connects a particular breed of dog with each of the 12 signs of the zodiac.
These are great little character pieces, from the quirky, even eastern-inflected melody of ‘Beagle (Aquarius)’, and the humorous rhythmically uneven ‘goofy gait’ of the ‘Labrador Retriever (Sagittarius)’, to the cartoonishly playful ‘Irish Wolfhound (Aries)’, with its energetic variations on ‘The Irish Washerwoman’ melody. ‘Saint Bernard (Leo) is slow and rhapsodic, whilst hints of Prokofiev return in the prancing ‘Standard Poodle (Libra)’. I’m not sure I get the zodiac references, not being an astrology expert, yet despite being a cat person (I must check out Astro Cats), the characters of the dogs are cleverly portrayed here, and Graff brings this out with great variety of articulation and expression. A great discovery – and always a good sign when a recording of a ‘new’ composer makes me want to seek out more of their music.