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CD Review: Samuel Claiborne

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Sonotrope Sound and Image, 2007

High Falls’s Samuel Claiborne has certainly had no shortage of pain and spiritual trials from which to draw for the sparse, fathomless, and profoundly moving solo piano improvisations in The Annunciation: In 1992, his spinal cord was crushed in a bicycle accident, leaving him a quadriplegic. In a story that can only be described as miraculous, Claiborne eventually regained 95 percent of the use of his body. Although Claiborne had been a guitarist in a series of late ’70s New York punk outfits, during his recovery he discovered and fell in love with the piano, an instrument he’d barely played before.

Yet monumental as they are, Claiborne’s personal tribulations are really more of The Annunciation’s underlying imprimatura. A self-described “Taoist/Pagan/Agnostic,” on visiting Europe Claiborne nevertheless found himself strongly affected by paintings depicting the Virgin Mary being told by Gabriel that she is to bear the Son of God; Claiborne was struck by the enormity the concept would’ve held for any woman, let alone a simple fieldworker like Mary. The upshot? These 11 meditations on different phases and aspects of the tale, from the Blessed Virgin’s life before the pronouncement (the spare “Alone”) to Jesus’s birth (the portentous “Before There Was Stained Glass”); from Christ’s betrayal (the darkly rumbling “A Kiss [Judas]”) to Mary’s final years (“Alone [Reprise]”). But, whether they have a belief system or not, anyone in need of a little universe-centering quietude will connect with Claiborne’s impressionistic, beautifully pensive playing.

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