Dan DeChellis

by Matthew Crain

 

The only time I’ve ever cried in an art gallery was in San Jose, California, at Carmen Lomas Garza’s piece about her dead father. He loved puttering in his garage, so she trucked it all in–tool chest, workbench, gaudy Aztec calendar, oily rags–and set it all up like it had been. What got me was the mariachi music quietly playing from his little transistor radio in its black leather carrying case: to listen to the trumpets and the vihuela while gazing at his brown fedora with a grey silk band on the work bench and know that never again will it snug down into the groove in his hair–people, the tears just streamed down my cheeks.

Almost as upsetting is “24 Hour Intervals,” the first tune on Dan DeChellis’s new CD, Strength and Anger. I love this tune because, as it expresses the fragility of life, it also expresses how “the new day” doesn’t bring anything new but shoves your face again in what night and sleep mercifully removed.

It has become the Official Soundtrack of The West Ward, and I’m listening to it now as the woman in her housecoat lugs the barrel of empties back up the muddy bank past her sorry husband watching on the porch, and the woman just out of the shower kisses the guy she brought home last night and hopes he’ll be nice to her little son strapped into the back seat–that big bright B6sus2 ostinato or whatever it is the piano is playing, hits a nerve.

As much as you hear Prokofiev, Satie, Cage and Ives in how DeChellis voices his chords, you also hear Keith Emerson and Donald Fagen, and as you listen to him you get a picture of a musical Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a piano player with a “photographic ear”: he has only to hear it once and he never forgets it. (Me, I’m tone deaf, but I do have a photogenic mind. . . )  What struck me is how DeChellis seems to tuck his grand piano under his arm and play it like a guitar and give a clinic on chord melody. –You don’t need me to tell you he can play the legs off a piano.

DeChellis teaches improvisation at Moravian College, has released several CDs of improvisation, made his name as an improviser, but you’d never know it after listening this CD. Bassist Scot Hornick and drummer Steve Decker are here to accompany, as if solos would interrupt the piano’s argument.

Each song insists on plotting out its steps. Which lead toward . . .The songs’ titles offer clues (“Empty Words and Spent Energy,” “What I know and What I Wish I Didn’t”) as does the dedication (“to the memory of my father”). The collection is like, well, like Rilke’s panther, each song pacing ceaselessly back and forth within its form, from corner to corner and back again, seeming—I’m making this up–to want to say what should have been said, to say what would fly up into a mouth and have to be bitten back and swallowed down and then comes the big act of denying that anything’s wrong. (See what can lurk behind an innocent-sounding melody?) As DeChellis plays, you feel him soaked with some particular memory, a remembered feeling, some defining moment of his life.

The tunes on Strength and Anger are all originals, they mean the world to Dan DeChellis, and you can listen to them when he brings his trio for their CD release party June 7th at Two Rivers Brewing.

 

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