Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa - Known & UnKnown: Solo Piano Works by Rodney Sharman

Over an hour of piano with some voice, dramatic, theatrical but soft, occasionally vulgar

Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa -  Known & UnKnown: Solo Piano Works by Rodney Sharman
Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa. Photo: SD Holman

Pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa plays Known and UnKnown: Solo Piano Works by Rodney Sharman: a composer in his sixties based in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood. I was unfamiliar with Sharman's music before hearing this project: over an hour of solo piano with some spoken word added into dramatic, at times theatrical but largely soft, occasionally vulgar material.

The vulgarity comes from one big number tucked away in the middle called "The Garden", a bit of a three-act play in miniature with piano and spoken word. At that point the record comes alive to me, and I feel like I know Sharman for the first time a little bit, even though I've not been aware of him at all beyond seeing the flowers in his beard in the photos. I can feel this way a little bit from a single listen to the album, which is a testament to the quality of the presentation from Iwaasa and the capture and sequencing of his works.

Iwaasa and Sharman are longtime collaborators, with a performance including "The Garden" over two decades ago being a notable milestone in the pianist's career.

The piano playing is powerful but also restrained. The first half of the album is opera-based; I lean on the press materials for context:

"The series recasts the melodies of (mostly) famous arias (each chosen by the pianists who premiered them) within dramatically different sonic environs. Though ostensibly they're something straightforward—a mere transcription—the connection to the original works tends, in fact, to be rather elusive, with vibrant arrangements tactics from strident harmonies to extended techniques, and from unexpected singing to spoken texts."

These tracks are pretty intense – some of them have voice – sown to the dramatic slamming of the piano on "La Jolie Fille de Perth". Another one of the most attention-grabbing ones for me was "Madama Butterfly", where the chord stabs could have come from Bill Evans on "So What". The first part of the second half of the album, "Narcissus", develops this in such an interesting way with super-intense chording.

Then we get three short action-packed pieces pieces en route to "The Garden". As for that piece itself, the first act balances singing with narration, is softer, and lasts for about the first four minutes before a roiling piano interlude lifts us out of it.

For act two, a sort of doo-wop song, that actually gets counted off in the middle of the arrangement, sets the scene of the composer's age and what period of time that would have been. It's funny, a striking change. Finally, there's a third act that begins at about seven minutes in, where it gets dark.

It's appropriate that you get the only deliberate, short tune with simple harmony, "Little Venice", right out of "The Garden" to come down. Then of the last two tracks, the first one sounds like it reprises themes from track one. The last one is an exploratory piece that dances around on a few rhythms and contrasts. On the whole Known and Unknown is a welcoming album, a rangy project, and for me a fine introduction to the veteran composer Sharman.

released Mar. 22, 2024 / Buy CD & digital (Bandcamp) / available on streaming