This Little Underground: Elizabeth A. Baker on the toy piano frontier

Bleubird Photo by Tipso Photo

Shit's been pretty dark lately in both music and the world in general. But be thankful and be good to each other. The sun will shine again.

The Beat

A "Toy Piano Project" sounds like something perhaps involving Fisher-Price and local circuit-bender Dr. Moonstien, particularly when I mention that a Speak & Spell was employed. Instead, this curious enterprise is the brainchild of Elizabeth A. Baker.

Baker is a credentialed pianist from St. Pete who's a bright mind in the young wave of avant-garde classical music. She appeared at the In-Between Series in Jim Ivy's Tangled Bell Ensemble back in May, but returned this time (Nov. 16, Gallery at Avalon Island) on her own toy piano crusade to kick off a national tour.

It could be that you're not especially familiar with the toy piano as a serious concert instrument. I'm not, and I'll go out on a limb and say that's probably most of us. But even if you are au courant in the arcane device, smart-ass, it's likely your conception will be notably widened after seeing her sonic and theoretical examination of it.

Baker opened with perhaps the most famous work written for the instrument, John Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano." Though she took appropriate liberty with the notes, it was sonically straight. It wasn't until the next piece – one of her own originals, tentatively titled "Meditation for Water, Wind and Metal" – that her genius really blossomed.

This most arresting passage of the evening employed deep reverb and delay effects to gather, synthesize and amplify sound to incredible atmospheric results. Reflected through her array, the ambient noise of the quiet room was escalated to a gripping otherworldly drone. Besides the featured toy piano, she punctuated the din as the working title suggests by engaging water with glockenspiel bars, cymbals and a colander. The technique was imaginative and the effect transporting, like some porthole to an alien sensory world.

Baker's other original composition, "Experimental Suite for Toy Piano With Electronics and Drums," introduced accompanist Leo Suarez. Though it has little to do with this performance, I'm noting that he's the drummer for savage new Tampa upcomer Meatwound because it's a dope bit of trivia and I really think you should go get destroyed by them when they return to town to play Will's Pub with Torche (Jan. 22). This appearance, however, showcased Suarez's experimental free-jazz side with playing that was jarring, inventive and full of tension.

As distinguished as the other composers she interpreted in this performance are, Baker's own pieces were by far the most provocative. Work like this is a sterling testimonial to her artistry, proving that she's not simply an expert in the toy piano field but a pioneer.

The notable hip-hop show headlined by Bleubird (Nov. 19, Backbooth) was a look at both what could and should be the face of Florida alternative rap. Although he's from Ft. Lauderdale, Bleubird is a homegrown underground hero whose ties to the 407 go back deep and long enough for honorary citizenship. His name still has a lot of cachet here with the hip-hop cognoscenti but, really, this guy should be much bigger already. Even though he's legitimately indie, this gifted MC packs as much colorful swag as any big-name Southern rapper, but with none of the bullshit bravado and 10 times the personality. He's got so much natural charisma, in fact, that there's an easy future for him in stand-up or spoken word if this rap thing doesn't work out. Bleubird's been in the game a long time and he's way overdue for a break. He's a brilliantly current voice that's all steeze and originality, so now would be a just time.

Speaking of, local opener Table for Three is also very much now. Aware and progressive, the young conscious-rap trio is the picture and sound of today, packing classic skills with modern sensibility and anenlightened viewpoint. Ensemble rap is a tricky-ass thing, and this threesome could use a little more tightening on the trades, but they're sitting on a seriously enviable payload of potential.

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