C.M Jenkins - First Movements Along A Curve (Album Review)

For many people, the 1984 movie Amadeus is the first point of reference for the world of classical music, bringing a dramatic and character-fueled aspect to the otherwise intimidating wall of pretence and demanding music. The success of that movie is down to memorable scenes, one of which involves an emperor summarizing one of Mozart's works as having "too many notes". While comparing a composer, especially a modern one, to Mozart is not only cliché but categorically incorrect, C.M. Jenkins is also fond of using 'too many' notes. On his debut album, First Movements Along A Curve, the New Yorker generously applies a superabundance of notes to his pensive, curious, and often melancholic compositions. 

The Replacements would later echo the Emperor on "I Hate Music" ("I hate music, sometimes I don't, I hate music, it's got too many notes"). By doing so, they claimed punk was just as deserving as classical music and attempted to realign music criticism back to pre-war naivety. Decidedly separate from the modern giants of the solo piano, Nils Frahm, Olaf Arnolds, Hania Rani, et al., Jenkins falls more in line with tradition, drawing on tried and tested formulas to express compounded sentiments. A fast player with a stilted style, his notes are delivered with precisive certitude, often hammered into existence, with even the more subdued sections having an immediacy that begs attention; background music this is not. Instead, it's an academically informed album that draws from tradition as it taps into the inherent spiritedness of composition. However, these compositions have been worked on; to use a proverb, the proof is in the pudding. The eight tracks show signs of craftsmanship; while listening, one can envision a composer laboriously sitting over their notation. The album has been in motion since 2021, when "Piano Etude in Agitato" was released as its first single. Here, it is the opening track and is fittingly titled. The Italian musical term 'agitato' is an instruction to play quickly and with agitation or excitement. An etude is a short instrumental piece designed for practising a particular skill. This track prepares Jenkins, and his audience, for the dense music that follows. 

As rich as the compositions are, the subject matter of First Movements Along A Curve is relatively dry. The lack of any coherent or relatable theme is partly due to song titles that rely on a syntax of music theory lexicon but also the emotionally chaotic music that seems to look for answers to questions it already knows, complicating things to comprehensively explore its corners. In places, it's totally justified, like when memorable ostinatos add an associative aspect. This is especially true of the impressive and replete "Piano Concerto #1", which establishes itself through manically energetic passages, or the playfully allegro arpeggios of the unpredictable "The River in Veloce", which ruminates on the struggle, plateaus, and downfalls of the human condition via Glassesque structures which ascend then rest then descend in dramatically capricious fashion. 

Meanwhile, another highlight is "The Butterfly in Allegro", which has all the grace of its titular Rhopalocera, floating up and down the scale at unrestrained tangents. While not the strongest track, the short "Denise" is a good representation of Jenkins's work; choppily played, harmonically novel, and conventionally beautiful. Finally, "Avventura de Sogna" closes the otherwise solo piano album with indiscernible effects flavouring the keys. This may hint at the next stage of Jenkin's musical evolution, where he transposes his tendency of being proficient into being visionary. First Movements Along A Curve has moments of vision, notably when anticipation slowly builds towards its unique brand of timelessly relevant solo piano music. There may be too many notes, but they're arranged wonderfully.