The whirlwind that is pianist Charl du Plessis’s life has meant that more than 20 years into his performance career, he is finally releasing his first solo album. He reveals the thought processes behind Freehand to DIANE DE BEER:
Pianist extraordinaire Charl du Plessis is all about improvisation – not only on the keyboards but also in his life. He has to be. He has that many projects in the air at a given time, and constantly has to juggle.
Stepping off a plane from an international destination, he runs to catch another flight to make a concert as Nataniël’s accompanist the following day and then he rushes from there to catch up with the Charl du Plessis Trio who are also releasing a CD at the Woordfees in March.
But with improv part of his game, he will be performing his latest and first solo album, Freehand, at the Atterbury Theatre (and in concerts throughout the year across the country) on Sunday at 3pm, followed by a performance in the Cango Caves just outside Oudtshoorn on March 28 at 8pm as part of this year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK), bookings opening on Saturday (February 21). This hasn’t happened in 24 years and is a rare event which won’t happen again soon.
The origin of the solo album began with unwinding after concerts and a hectic touring life. Arriving home and wishing to unwind, this Steinway artist would sit and tinkle on one of his two Steinways (one a new acquisition) playing music that’s gentle to his ear. When he felt it was time for a solo album – finally – it was to these excursions in his mind that he decided to escape to.
He would sit down at the piano, and we all know that end of day feeling, and start playing. This was music that he liked listening to and never to please anyone. It’s mostly gentle and spontaneous, yet once he decided this was the way to go, he would practice improvising according to a specific mood, a moment or an object that would take him to a specific place.
“I didn’t feel I had to prove anything,” he says about this solo attempt – and many of his fans would say about time.
But of his many endeavours, where Charl has also excelled is planning his own career. Any solo career is a challenge as an artist. You only have yourself, your skills and a professionalism which helps you to sell and establish yourself. But mostly you’re always on show.
And one of his attributes is coming up with new ways of making music – classical, jazz and simply a melody that he finds enchanting or a composer he wants to showcase. He would contact a fellow performer or two or three and put together a show.
What is truly impressive is that these shows always had a specific individuality and originality and never felt forced. This was an unusual yet also deliberate route. And those who know Charl’s work would have expected something as smart as Freehand to go solo with.
He is celebrating two decades as concert pianist in both classical and jazz spheres. This is not typical but from the start (and I witnessed his first jazz competition in which he competed against some of the top young talent in the country, achieving a brilliant second place), he felt comfortable in both spaces. “I have had true musical satisfaction in combining my passion for various styles in crossover arrangements for multiple projects with my trio, with orchestra or solo,” he writes in his album notes.
This one specifically captures his own voice – an important step for especially solo artists. He describes this way of playing piano almost like an artist doodling or a chef who after a particular stint in the kitchen would crave comfort food not fine dining. And once he knew this was what he was going to do, he turned to fellow musician, the Trio’s drummer, Peter Auret, who is also an award-winning recording engineer, to record this pet project. It took three solid days of spontaneously improvising at the Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg – no rules, no preconceived ideas.
They have worked together before and the reason Charl is comfortable with this particular artist is that he feels no judgement. This was a project that felt very personal, a statement as a first solo album, but Charl also needed it to be far removed from critics, purists and conservatives.
Living and working in this world, especially in South Africa, he knows the pressures. It’s a tiny but hugely critical community and can sometimes inhibit artists to try something new – the essence of being an artist. By chance I heard some critics talk about his first Freehand performances and it was clear that he had found something truly unique to share with an already adoring following. But that’s how you get there.
Once the recordings had been made, the process was still on-going. “I left it before listening for five months because I needed some breathing space and distance,” he explains. Then he was called to choose some tracks because these improvs didn’t yet have titles. Following the completion of the album, which then had to be performed, he had to relearn the pieces that had flowed from his imagination.
“I couldn’t even recognise some of the pieces when I listened to it the first time,” he says. “This is what I love about spontaneous music making: the unpredictable journey, the freshness, the honesty, the energy, the enjoyment,” he concludes in his album notes.
The success has been sweet and he walked off after that Aardklop run with the best musical production award. Something that has been rewarding too which he didn’t take into account was the mobility of the project. “I’m reaching different audiences because I can pack up, travel and play,” he says – from Upington to Vleesbaai and from Shanghai to Switzerland.
Charl knew early on that he didn’t want to travel the typical classical route. He needed to find a voice that would catch the fancy of audiences – worldwide. He has done exactly that on a stage, probably the most difficult in the world. This is storytelling without words and demands that the audience truly use their imagination.
With all his different projects, Charl has made sure of that – and now for the first time, he hopes to capture them with a very personal story. Listen and make up your mind. I think it is difficult to resist.
For more detail and dates, check https://charlduplessis.com/