Much to my surprise, my favorite tape music album of 2023 did not come from any of the usual suspects (Nonconnah, Lilien Rosarian, Ian William Craig, etc.) and instead came courtesy of this unusual collaboration between newly Parisian jazz pianist/composer Richard Sears and producer Ari Chersky. While I am unfamiliar with Sears' previous activities in NYC's avant-garde scene before his trans-Atlantic relocation, Appear to Fade is an entirely new animal altogether, as it is a series of collages built from decontextualized/recontextualized recordings of solo piano compositions and live improvisations. I can understand why this is being released as a Richard Sears album, given the fact that he played everything and has some serious jazz cred to boot, but the impact of Chesky's editing and healthy appreciation for pleasures of analog tape distortion elevates those recordings into something brilliant that feels far greater than the sum of its parts. While much of that success is due to the pair's unerring intuitions and Sears' undeniably beautiful playing, the real magic of Appear to Fade lies in how masterfully the duo were able to organically weave together looping melodies with fluid and spontaneous-sounding improvisations while evoking a mesmerizing mirage of elegantly shifting moods.
The opening "Tracing Time" is quite possibly one of the most gorgeous tape-based pieces that I have heard in my life, as a delicate piano melody lazily winds through a shifting and swaying landscape of straining tape warbles, analog murk, and subtly rhythmic swells. Moreover, beyond its immediately obvious melodic and textural pleasures, the piece evokes a wonderful strain of frayed and unraveling opulence and also feels like time is fitfully freezing and reversing due to all the ingenious tape manipulations. There is even a surprise twist at the end, as the dream-like bliss curdles into something more ominous that resembles the soundtrack from a mangled VHS of a Bela Lugosi-style classic vampire film played backwards. Obviously, it does not take a genius to realize that putting your best foot forward is a great way to kick off an album, but there is definitely an art to sequencing the remaining pieces so they feel like different flavors of wonderful rather than a dip in quality. To their credit, Sears and Chesky succeed beautifully in that regard and even managed to keep a second masterpiece ("Manresa") in the chamber until nearly the end of the album.
“Manresa” favorably reminds me of Steve Roden’s uncharacteristically melodic Stars of Ice album, as it similarly feels like it was constructed from samples culled from an old 78 of Christmas music. That was not the case here, of course, but knowing that does not stop me from feeling like I am inside a hallucinatory snow globe: the disjointed and tumbling melodies nicely evoke distantly flickering Christmas lights in a phantasmagoric winter landscape. Happily, the remaining six pieces are all compelling in their own distinctive ways as well. For example, “Oceans” feel like darkly jazzy chord shapes fleetingly forming and dissipating in an ambient fog, which is a neat trick, but it also feels like those chords are incrementally moving closer and closer towards cohering into a pattern that never comes. Elsewhere, “Flotsam” resembles a room full of out-of-sync ballerina music boxes conjuring a flickering constellation of pointillist beauty, while “Tulev” feels like I am being sucked into a black hole while extra-dimensional traffic noise bleeds into a piano recital.
The album’s final piece, "What I Meant to Say Was," is also quite noteworthy, as it is an unedited performance of Sears “improvising a jazz standard” at the end of a long day on one of David Klavins’ artisanal Una Corda pianos. Normally, I would bristle with indignation (is nothing sacred?!?) at the idea of ending a near-perfect tape loop collage album with a straight piano performance, but it strikes the perfect tone in this case, as sounds like Bill Evans was dropped at the piano in Casablanca to deliver a spare and bittersweet coda of magical realism. While I historically tend to believe that virtuosic musicianship is more of an obstacle than an asset when attempting to craft a bold creative vision, it is always a legitimate thrill when I encounter an exception like this one where the opposite is true. There are plenty of other artists out there who could throw together a cool album from piano loops, but it takes someone with legitimately sophisticated melodic and harmonic sensibilities to achieve such a wonderfully surreal Alice in Wonderland-like tapestry of seamlessly interwoven beauty, darkness, innocence, disorientation, and magic.