When virtuoso pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop
, discovered in a Buffalo nursing home last year, released his first album at age 85, the world took notice. He made the front page of the New York Times
and was featured on NPR. What the world didn’t know was that just weeks after the celebration Boyd suffered a major heart attack. He was literally dead for close to six minutes. Once revived, and his health restored, Dunlop boldly announced that he wanted to get out of the nursing home and record another album.
Titled The Lake Reflections
, the eight original recordings, each inspired by photographer Brendan Bannon’s thoughtful images of Lake Erie, were the foundation of what can only be described as a visual score. Dunlop looked at the photos and played what they made him feel. The song titles (“Snow on the Water,” “Sunset Turmoil”) along with a 16-page CD booklet filled with Bannon’s photos, provides clues as to which images inspired which improvisations.
This is an album of improvised solo piano pieces that pull the listener into kaleidoscopically shifting collages of harmony and melody. Un-tethered from his rhythm section, he plays, freely and often completely outside genre; a man at the piano ready to explore what he calls his “harmonic vocation.” One wonders if his recent journey to the other side of life and back hasn’t emboldened him artistically.
Bound up in its own visual and musical logic, this daring album defies most genre-based conventions, and turns heads because of it. Producer Allen Farmelo writes, “With the first record we celebrated Boyd, and here I really want to see his music and musicianship celebrated. Boyd the musician. Boyd the composer. And what a rare and wonderful one he is.”
It’s an incredible accomplishment for a man to make his first record at age 85, but no one – not even Dunlop – could have expected him to return from a near death experience to record a such an audacious, unique and panoramic work.
|photo: Brendan Bannon
Music runs deep in Boyd Lee Dunlop‘s bloodline. Born in Winston Salem, NC in 1926, he came to Buffalo as a child, when his family followed his aunt – the first African American violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. One day, young Dunlop found a broken down, discarded piano outside his house with only half the keys working. That didn’t stop him. As Dunlop remembers, “I asked my mother if I could bring it into the house. She refused, but arranged for a friend to build a shed for it outside. I thought it would be easy for me to play. If I could see the notes, I could play. What can I say? A year later we bought a piano, and here I am.”
Musical talent in the Dunlop family didn’t stop with Dunlop. He gave his younger brother, Frankie, his first drum lesson. “We used the thin wood from the back of a chair as our sticks.” Frankie went on to find fame as a drummer, playing with such notables as Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and other greats.
Boyd Lee Dunlop‘s trajectory followed a different course. For years, Dunlop toiled in Buffalo’s steel mills and rail yards, yet he always found his way back to music. When times were tough he took to the road, crisscrossing the states and playing in any juke joint, gin mill or dive that had a piano. He returned to the Queen City and performed at the storied Colored Musicians Club and other notable venues where the eighty-eight keys always waited for him. For nearly eighty years, Dunlop was a ‘live’ musician. Then, for the first time, at age eighty-five, he stepped into a recording studio in Buffalo, NY with renowned musicians Sabu Adeyola on bass and Virgil Day on drums and finally recorded an album of his own. Boyd’s Blues resulted from a chance encounter between Dunlop and photographer Brendan Bannon. As Bannon explains, “I went to Delaware Nursing Home to speak to a doctor about a photography project. In the chair next to me, just back from a walk, sat Boyd Lee. ‘You here to see someone?’ he asked. ‘I think I’m here to see everyone.’ ‘You a doctor?’ ‘Photographer.’ ‘Yeah? I’m a musician.'”
Bannon started recording Dunlop on the broken-down, out-of-tune piano in the nursing home. Hearing his own music played back, Dunlop told Bannon that he’d like to make a record. After listening to some of these first recordings, producer Allen Farmelo flew into town and recorded the album in one long session on a snowy winter’s day.
After the session Dunlop said, “I waited my whole life for this day and I was gonna do it if it killed me.” On Christmas Day 2011, Dunlop suffered a heart attack and was in cardiac arrest for six minutes while hospital staff worked to revive him. Now, recovered, rested and ready, and with one celebrated album to his credit, he presents his newest, and most ambitious work, The Lake Reflections.