For some, music is a hobby or a pleasant pastime. For others, it is as essential as the air they breathe. According to pianist/composer Brian Kelly: “Music is my home. It became my home because it was the constant in my early life. Our family moved around a lot when I was a kid. By the time I left for college, my family had moved 18 times. Music has continued to be my home throughout my adult life.”
This abiding interest in musical self-expression began early and suddenly for Brian. As he described in our interview: “When I was eight, my family took a summer vacation in Maine and stayed in a house that had an upright piano. I’d never really had access to a piano before, and I couldn’t tear myself away. I was playing songs by ear, working out chords, and creating my own pieces. My mother recognized my fixation with the piano. Within a few years, we had a piano and I took a few piano lessons. These lessons were enough to give me a foundation to explore on my own. From that time, I was already thinking about creating pieces and composing.”
Later in his teen years, Brian expanded into taking guitar lessons, playing percussion in the school orchestra, singing in the choir, and more. Although music was obviously important to him, what was even more of a primary focus at that time was acting and theatre, where he participated in nearly twenty productions at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, Palo Alto High School, and TheatreWorks in the San Francisco Bay area where he lived at the time. As Brian describes: “It wasn’t until my third year in college that music became my creative focus. An outgrowth of my years in the theatre is that when I compose and play music, I often think in terms of narrative arc, dramatic tension, and character development.”
Another artistic influence was dance. In his words: “A turning point in my musical development came when I played and improvised on piano for modern dance classes. At first, it was a big challenge for me to reconcile the act of playing the piano, which requires a limited range of movement – essentially, moving along a horizontal axis – with dance, which involves a wide range of movement through space. Gradually, I expanded my repertoire of techniques and found ways to convey the movement of dance – with curves, arcs, spirals, and gestures – through my playing. Pieces on Butterfly Rapture exemplify techniques I explored and utilized in the context of dance and choreography.”
Brian’s process of putting this album together had an interesting evolution. As he tells it: “I began assembling material for Butterfly Rapture back when I had a regular gig playing for cancer patients at the Stanford Hospital. I had the luxury of playing and improvising what I wanted, as long as it was mostly gentle and soothing. I used the time to explore my catalog of compositions, finish pieces, decide which of them worked well together, and develop new material. As my melodies floated through the building I hoped to stir memories, raise spirits, and bring solace.”
So let’s take flight on the wings of Butterfly Rapture and see where the music leads us. The album gets off to a strong start with the opening track, “Piano Escapade.” There is a cinematic feel to this piece and I could definitely imagine it as a film soundtrack. One of the things that impressed me right away was Brian’s sense of dynamics and his ability to move between delicate passages and those that were much more powerful. In describing his music, Brian calls it “neoclassical with elements of jazz and other influences.” However, as he pointed out in our interview, genres can be misleading, especially with one like “new age” which has become a catch-all term. In his words: “Genre designations are like skyscrapers that block the sky. The important thing is for me is to find a natural path to creative expression. For this to happen there must be “Room for Sky,” which just happens to the title for track 2. On this jazzy upbeat piece, Brian displays striking keyboard technique and phrasing which really made me sit up and take notice. Just in the first two songs I got a sense of what he meant when he said: “My music integrates a broad palette of styles and techniques that I blend with the aim of expressing a continuous spectrum of emotion.”
The slower, more reflective feel of track 6, “Spiral Moon” provides a bit of a change up from the first five compositions, which are considerably higher energy. I had mentioned earlier about Brian’s experience playing for modern dance classes, and this piece was one that evolved out of that. There is a definite sense of graceful movement here that evokes images of a contemporary dance performance. On “Playing My Heart,” Brian expresses his more romantic side while exhibiting some jaw-dropping technique in the second half.
Track 11, “Winter Aura” has an interesting story behind it. As Brian tells it: “I once attended the funeral of a prominent, well-loved Bay Area jazz pianist. Hundreds gathered to memorialize his life and work. That evening, I composed a piece that far exceeded my abilities at the time. My understanding of harmony and voicings took a giant leap forward. It all seemed to come together effortlessly, as if I somehow I tapped into or received a transmission of his musical knowledge. Perhaps I was playing music that he was not able to manifest while he was alive. That night, I became the instrument and music played through me.” The piece has a different feel than other tracks on the album, which I found quite fascinating, and at times brought to mind piano legend and John Coltrane accompanist, McCoy Tyner. The album concludes with a masterful performance on the title track that highlights Brian’s considerable abilities as a composer.
As mentioned, it’s hard to classify Brian’s music, although if Jedi master Obi Wan was a musician, he might say: “the jazz Force is strong in this one.” Elements of jazz are found throughout the album, and I’m not talking about smooth jazz, but more adventurous and complex forms of the genre. If I had to choose one word to describe Brian’s playing on Butterfly Rapture it would be “passionate.” I had the feeling of him being totally committed and pouring his heart and soul into every song, often digging in with unexpected vigor and intensity. This is definitely not background music. It is powerfully engaging and commands your attention. I am beyond impressed with Brian’s talents as a pianist and composer, and found this to be one of the most unique solo piano albums I’ve heard in a while.