...Unlike Daisy, Piet embarked on some lengthy detours on his way to playing free jazz in Chicago. He grew up in Palos Park, where he took up piano at age ten. He showed early promise, and before he reached his teens he was playing cocktail piano and classical music at parties, charity events, and recitals. He also accompanied a local children's choir outside of school, an experience that taught him how to engage with an ensemble. "That was really instrumental in developing my ear beyond just what you do at the piano," he recalls.
Piet first heard jazz at age 17, when he attended a summer camp at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he went on to study it there. After graduating from Berklee in 2008, he briefly enrolled in Indiana University's graduate program and then went to work on cruise ships for several years as a solo pianist and bandleader. "I would sometimes return to Chicago, and one of those times that I returned was in 2013, when Constellation opened," he says. Feeling stifled by his cruise-ship work and inspired by the musicians he'd heard back home, Piet resettled here in 2014.
Alongside the gigs he took to make money, playing cocktail piano and accompanying choirs, Piet began seeking out people with whom he could improvise freely. He frequently attended Sound of the City, a Wednesday-night workshop at Constellation that combined a set by an established ensemble with a jam session. "That's where I met a lot of younger people, or contemporaries of mine who were going on a regular basis to jam," he says.
During this period, Piet attended to more than his musical development—he also decided to call in reinforcements in his fight against alcoholism and mental illness, which had been brewing since his early 20s. "Right as I was moving to Chicago and I quit ships, I was finally taking some steps to address my issues with addiction and with mental health," he says. "In hindsight, I was probably improperly medicated for several years, because it's tough to get the right thing going. I was immediately diagnosed with bipolar disorder and thrown into the world of heavy antipsychotics, which felt like a chemical lobotomy for a while. I think that what kept me stable from the time that I came to Chicago was actually much more sobriety and the access to music than it was the psychiatric medication."
By 2016, Piet was clicking not only with his peers (including saxophonist Jake Wark and drummer Bill Harris, who play with him in Four Letter Words) but also with improvisers ten years his senior. The night after the 2016 presidential election, he played a concert with two of those older musicians, Dave Rempis and Daisy. "We all sort of came in and aired our grievances about what we had just found out, and then after that we just played," Piet says. "It was very good."
Between May and July 2017, Piet recorded Rummage Out (Clean Feed) with Daisy, Josh Berman, and Nick Mazzarella; Throw Tomatoes (Astral Spirits) with Daisy and Rempis; and City in a Garden (Ears & Eyes), a collection of small-group encounters with a variety of other local players who were all finding their footing at around the same time. In every setting, Piet is an assertive and flexible improviser, equally adept at managing his own dense flows of sound, using darting figures to set up his partners' forays, and putting his hands into the piano's interior to wrench out rainbows of resonance.
By all appearances, Piet should've had a good year in 2018, but things went seriously awry. He lost his insurance and went off his meds (without insurance, they cost him more than $2,000 per month), and the death of pianist Cecil Taylor in April hit him hard. Taylor had been a personal hero of Piet's, and as he reflected on Taylor's life, his increasingly intrusive thoughts cast a pall over his ability to take satisfaction in his own accomplishments. He felt fraudulent because he'd benefited from Taylor's creativity and struggle for acceptance but hadn't needed to put in as much effort himself.
"I thought, how am I supposed to think of what I did a year ago as anything special, when this person did this for years and years and really put so much work into it?" Piet says. "I woke up to what a long game being an improviser or even being a musician really is. And so I had to reconcile what I had stolen from him, if I had, for the ways that he had inspired me, but also the ways that he had paved the way for someone like me to just get up and play a lot of notes on the piano and have an audience say, well, we've heard Cecil Taylor, so we accept that."
Taylor hadn't just expanded the universe of musical possibility, thus giving Piet space to do what he wanted; he'd also provided an example of how to survive and thrive as a queer man in jazz. Piet was keenly aware that he hadn't faced the same challenges as Taylor. "I've never had any issue within the community with being bisexual; it has never been a source of shame or really any trouble for me, except for how you have to come out to people," he says. "In my case, as someone who is largely involved in romantic relationships with women, it's this other thing that, if it doesn't come up, it doesn't come up. But at the same time, it is part of my identity. If anything, I'm just all the more aware of anyone like Cecil, who never had the generational luxury to really be out. That added to the guilt, to say OK, this guy struggled in so many other ways, but I shouldn't."
The negativity that consumed Piet came as his recording career took several leaps forward in quick succession. "At the time that I had two and then a third big release coming, I couldn't handle it mentally, and that crept into my playing, where I was not able to play or to enjoy music of any kind," he says. "If I went to a show, I was restless, and I really didn't purchase much music most of 2019 or listen to anything."
Piet had stopped booking creative-music gigs after the June 2018 release party for City in a Garden, and in October of that year he started his current day job. This allowed him to get back on medication—this time a new treatment that included antidepressants to alleviate his anhedonia. He rented his La Grange apartment in January 2019, and by the end of the year, he'd stabilized and felt ready to return to music. "I was hoping to get back out there more regularly, maybe try to switch up what sort of groups I was leading," he says. "But moreover, I was just on the precipice of saying, OK, I know who I am as a musician, I know how to let that music out." Instead, he spent the spring locked down at his parents' home in the south suburbs.
Piet turned the circumstances to his advantage by honing his piano skills. "By June, I had been in quarantine with my folks for three months. That's where my piano resides, and that's where I started to really get my chops in line on multiple fronts," he says. "Each day I would sit down, and maybe I was juggling a few different plates of concepts—you know, general technique, classical music, tunes, improvisational music—and I would just sit down and feel out what I wanted to do at that time. If I wanted to play Chopin for an hour, I played Chopin for an hour. If I wanted to play bebop, I'd do that."
Soon Piet started itching to do something more creative. He considered making a conventional solo album, but he didn't want to record without an audience. He needed a different approach. "The idea went from 'OK, I gotta do something and I gotta do it in the studio because there is no other way,' to maybe 15 minutes later saying, 'I don't know, I hate the idea of overdubbing things, but I think I have to do it that way. I have to challenge myself to construct, in the same process every time, something that is interactive and improvisatory.'"
At the end of June, Piet spent a single day in the studio. Inspired by the overdubbed experiments of Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, the multipiano compositions of Morton Feldman and John Adams, and the composition Toneburst (Piece for Three Trombones Simultaneously) by trombonist George Lewis, he set himself the task of recording three layers of his own piano. First he'd improvise from a set of cues, and then he'd play two accompanying tracks in quick succession, listening to what he'd already played through headphones and improvising responses to it.
"I think it's funny that in order to get myself outside of what I thought would be really self-indulgent, which would be a solo piano record, I had to make more of myself," Piet says. "It helped rein me in to a degree, because I knew that if I just shot out all of these notes on the first take, I would be muddying the waters somewhat. I was really concerned about using these three passes to bring out things that were specific to the timbre of the piano itself."
The 15 tracks on (Pentimento), released last week by Bill Harris's Chicago-based Amalgam label, are sparser and more lyrical than the mercurial music that Piet has played in his regular trios. "I didn't want to ask too much of the audience's ear," he says. "That's why it's only 30 minutes, and that's why each track is two to three minutes at most. They're all part of a set of vignettes that are exploring what the piano is capable of doing if there were three people playing."
"It's something that I only would have done under these circumstances," Piet continues. "It's both a document of a time and an experiment that maybe I would have done at some point in my life, but I probably won't ever do it again. So it's nice to finally get a creative work finished in a solid way and be able to ask myself, 'What comes next?' Because I don't know. It won't be another one of these records, and it won't be anything I've ever done before, but it will be a continuation of these things."
Given the impossibility of reproducing (Pentimento) live, Piet's first step was to celebrate its release by playing a livestreamed concert last week at Constellation with Four Letter Words, his trio with Wark and Harris. Daisy hasn't scheduled any sort of record-release event, but between the virtual collaboration on Light and Shade and the all-acoustic solo drum-kit explorations on Room to Breathe, he's opened a range of creative options for himself. It's futile to guess what form each artist's next recording will take, but even if the music business returns to something like normal in the foreseeable future, they'll still need the flexibility and creativity they had to learn during the pandemic in order to stay in the game.
Written by Bill Meyer for The Chicago Reader
Pianist Matt Piet quickly turned heads on Chicago’s jazz and improvised music scene a few years ago, dropping a series of solo and collaborative projects that suggested impressive versatility, originality, and a collaborative spirit. But then he kind of dropped out. According to his liner essay for this concise solo outing, he suffered a breakdown revolving around substance abuse, mental illness and creative doubt. As he was getting back on his feet, COVID shut down potential activity, so in June of last year he went into the studio and drew inspiration from the 1963 Bill Evans album Conversations With Myself, on which the pianist overdubbed three separate tracks on each piece. Piet used simple ideas to guide each piece, like “inside the piano” or “within one octave,” but cut each new layer without hearing its predecessors, instead relying on memory and instinct. Thanks to his internal parameters each of the brief pieces — which range from one to three minutes, with all 15 works clocking in at 29 minutes — feels logical, with each component fitting in neatly. Naturally, some lines create more tension than others, but these meticulous constructions are nicely varied, using piano preparations or a limited range to execute each excursion. Here’s hoping there’s more to come from Piet.
Written by Peter Margasak for The Quietus
: a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist
: Italian, literally, repentance, correction, from pentire to repent, from Latin paenit?re
In a traumatic time…
It goes without saying that, at the time of this writing, the country into which I was born is suffering. Like a set of stacking dolls, our current trauma houses other trauma, which houses yet more trauma, and on and on. It is not merely “2020” that is our national tragedy. Thankfully, more and more people who are not among the most disenfranchised are waking up to this. If you are reading this, you know what I mean, and it is not I who ought to have the first or last word on any of it. All I can speak to is my own personal trauma, and that is what I aim to do with these words, and with this recording.
In the spring of 2018, I suffered a mental collapse largely of my own making. After a decade of struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, I was finally receiving recognition for my art and did not know how to process it. The death of Cecil Taylor impacted me in ways I had not anticipated. I was proud of the work I was releasing, but could not reconcile that pride with the guilt I felt knowing that Cecil had opened the door for me in so many ways.
How can I accept any recognition right out of the box when this man paved the way? What have I stolen from him? Am I a fraud? Can I see artistry as a long game, the way he did? How could I reconcile, as a queer white man in the 21st Century, what had so long been denied my hero of heroes?
I could not stop thinking about it.
It was not the anxiety of influence that was affecting me most. Abrupt cessation of all mind-altering substances, including psychiatric medication, led me to experience nearly two years of self-doubt, paranoia, anxiety, depression, and numbness to pleasure. This inability to experience pleasure was most evident in my capacity to listen to music, let alone play it. I was not myself, I was not playing like myself, and I had brought this anhedonia upon myself through sheer neglect of my spiritual condition and my health. I was proud enough of the material I had released that I found myself thinking, “Well, if I never play again, at least I did this.” Yet my creative paralysis made me fearful that this sentiment might be true. I was frightened that I had lost my creative spark, and that it would never return. I had forgotten to live by Cecil’s own words: “You own nothing. It isn’t about possession; it’s about giving.” I needed to learn how to give again.
…given a set of circumstances…
Cut to 2020. I was beginning to be able to play again, beginning to find joy in the making of music. Just as I was ready to return to the stage, abruptly there were no stages available to me. Fine. There was still much work to be done. I took this as an opportunity to get to work, in private, and get back in touch with my creativity. In that hermetic environment, it worked. I had awakened from dormancy with such gratitude that I could play music again in any capacity, grateful that music is an essential part of who I am, and fortunate that I play an instrument that one can explore at great length, alone.
After two years, I was ready to speak once again through my music. But how? Without being able to record new music with others safely, and feeling no need to make just another solo piano record, what was I to do? I decided that I would go against my own instincts to make something new. I wondered what might be possible if I went into the studio alone and overdubbed some improvised vignettes. I settled on three layers of multitrack solo piano, just as Bill Evans had done on Conversations with Myself. I wrote down a few concepts I wanted to explore. Just words on a page, a prompt for myself. I was concerned with texture and simplicity, and how these prompts (like “open fifths”; “inside the piano”; “within one octave” etc.) might be a vehicle for instant composition through a gradual process. In the interest of spontaneity, I wanted to record each subsequent overdub without listening back, relying on my own memory and the element of surprise to produce a finished product. I stuck to this process for the recording session, which yielded 20 pieces, 15 of which this record is composed.
…finds that the process is the product.
When I conceived of this record, the word “pentimento” came to me first as an art history term with which I was vaguely familiar. It seemed an appropriate analogue for what I aimed to do in the studio. A pentimento, in painting, is "the presence or emergence of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over." This seemed appropriate enough for what I was trying to create: a series of multi tracked improvisations made in sequence so that their layers would create a sound world that would not, and could not be created on one piano in real time by one pianist. That was enough for me, having a fitting title. However, it was not until I investigated the etymology of the word “pentimento” itself that it became clear to me what I was doing with this project. “Pentimento” in Italian means “repentance.”
Now, I am admittedly drawn to double-meanings, whether they be lewd for the sake of humor, poetically useful, or conveniently revelatory. In this case, it was the latter, and the concept of repentance colored my approach to the personal content. To get out of this rut, and get past it, I needed to repent for the sins I had committed against myself in the past, and I needed to do so by documenting my present feelings in an honest, discrete way. The process of recording this music was as important as the final product. In fact, in the case of this record, the process is the product. Following through on this creative act allowed me to extend myself some mercy, in the hope that I can get better, but also be better: be a better artist, a better person, a better citizen…
I hope we are all better soon.
Matt Piet - Piano
(improvised sequentially in three subsequent layers)
Recorded June 27, 2020 at belA ir Sound Studio by Todd Carter.
Mastered by Bill Harris