Swiss pianist Leo Tardin conceived Grand Pianoramax as a duo on wheels in a sense. Certainly the plan was for piano/keyboards with drums, but from the beginning he considered the project as an interactive base that invited collaborations -- as just one example, Deantoni Parks on drum kit and Tardin with his grand piano, Rhodes, miniMoog, and K-Station are collaborators with Detroit rapper Invincible. And Tardin and Parks are looking for ways to skitter through genres, not wrapping them in one another and not merely juxtaposing them. While their debut album was quite compelling, this sophomore effort is where it all comes to gel. The Biggest Piano in Town features the duo with Mike Ladd and Invincible on a cut each, but also rapper Spleen and poet Celena Glenn together on one, and Marko Djordjevic doing a voice-over elsewhere. Interspersed are funky, flipped-out, beat-heavy tracks that pop, swagger, and strut across everything from post-bop jazz to hip-hop to electronic music, all the while staying in the pocket enough to be accessible as well as innovative. Grand Pianoramax carve a stubborn and sharp niche for themselves. On "Showdown," with Ladd, delays are employed on the Rhodes as Tardin and Parks set a knotty little breakbeat-laden groove with plenty of funky lines that walk the knife edge. Ladd comes in with his poem about being a superhero who looks OK cool, but his arch enemy is clearly stylin' higher. He may have superhero powers, but his arch enemy can hear people having sex. A battle ensues, and the music responds with something approaching song, which eventually gets to Ladd, who translates his spoken word attack to accommodate the bridge in the melody and weave his words through it. Think Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Pryor meeting Hampton Hawes and Kraftwerk.
The angular classicism in some of the piano and drum instrumentals quickly gives way to a killer mash of funky post-bop that swings harder than Wynton's whole damn band. "Blue Gold," with Invincible, is deep in the hip-hop trench, but the jazzed-up harmonies and rhythmic concentration turn this toward brave and seemingly unlikely territory suggesting McCoy Tyner in a duet with Idris Muhammad. Invincible lays out the personal politic that is the face of the truth in the mask of America the insane; samples, concrète sounds, and spaces drop, slip, and roll underneath while it all stays tough, lean, and full of a groove that just cannot be stopped. But these aren't the only tricks from Grand Pianoramax. There are instrumental pieces here, like "Tempest" near the end, that move toward classical minimalism yet somehow come down the pipe and become some forward-thinking jazz à la Nik Bärtsch -- and Tardin is no slouch as a pianist; he's won international competitions. The separate intro to and the actual cut "The Hook" walk the line between old-school programmed synth sounds that evoke the 12" releases by Grandmaster Flash while being far fuller and as groove-driven, while introducing the half-poem, half-sung hip-hop between Glenn and Spleen. When they start to interact vocally, the music changes too, keeping the essence of the beat while extrapolating it and the modal frame of the body of the tune. And lest you all think these cats are behind the times when it comes to the frenzy of schizo electro, check out "Ride II: Driftin." "Nikolai Tesla" is as fusion as the '70s ever got when musicians of that era really started to explore the timbral ranges and percussive possibilities of the Rhodes -- think Joachim Kühn's Hip Elegy done with only a drummer. The flip-to-wig-city techno and tripped-out house that meld on "In the Lab" need to be heard to be believed -- and look for samples from it showing up on all kinds of records from here on in. The truth of the matter is that The Biggest Piano in Town actually is -- and then some. Killer.