Jesse Feinberg is the kind of omnivorous musician who is comfortable in several styles, and is therefore likely to turn up around town performing in any one of them. It might be accompanying a singer in a classical recital or performing new works at the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival at the Portland Conservatory, where he is on the faculty. But his real love is jazz, and when he performed on the conservatory’s Noonday Concert Series, at First Parish Universalist Unitarian Church on Thursday, he devoted his piano recital fully to improvisation.

You could argue, of course, whether the music he played was jazz or classical improvisation. Feinberg would say jazz, and many listeners think of classical improvisation as an oxymoron. But it is not. All the great composers, well into the 19th century, improvised; Bach, Mozart and even Beethoven, in his younger years, were revered in their day more as improvising pianists than as composers and many of the works we know and love – the Bach Toccatas, the Mozart Piano Concertos – began life as improvisations and were written down later.

In some corners of the classical music world – most notably, among organists – improvisation has remained a prized skill, and every now and then, you run into a player like Friedrich Gulda, or more recently, the British violinist Nigel Kennedy or the Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, whose passion for jazz has led them to keep their improvisatory chops fresh. But in general, the abandonment of this crucial skill has been one of the tragedies of classical music, because it has transformed performers into executants and interpreters rather than creators.

Feinberg played seven pieces, with two or three entirely extemporized, including the elaborate, almost cinematic opening piece, and the rest based on his own compositions, some of which can be heard on “Spectral Metamorphosis,” the album he released in January. His busy, hard-driven closing piece, for example, was the album’s title track, though in a version that allowed for spontaneous elaboration over its vibrant chord progression.

The music drew on Feinberg’s considerable range. There were jazz moves, of course – exploratory top lines over brisk chordal accompaniments, sudden shifts of tempo and meter, harmonies couched in traditional jazz harmonies, ragtime figures, with specific hints of Fats Waller’s rhythmic style, and glances at Latin beats and melodic accents.

But where Feinberg’s recording is unequivocally a jazz disc, the concert performance was more ambiguous. You could hear his classical roots clear in his third piece, “Success,” a meditative work that, for all the blue notes in its melody line, also drew on figuration that would not be out of place in Chopin or Rachmaninoff, and had the overall spirit of a Nocturne. The live account, in fact, was in some ways a mirror image of the recording. On disc, the piece begins gently and grows more intense and outgoing; live, it began dramatically and pulled back.

Other pieces, like “Banana Split Sunday,” the fifth work he played, veered toward contemporary classicism too, or at least, moved freely between that style and jazz, with chromaticism and syncopations serving as a common denominator conduit of sorts.

Feinberg spoke briefly at the start of the concert, noting only that he would be improvising, and that in the spirit of spontaneity, he had not chosen the pieces in advance. Judging by the handful of audience questions he took at the end (“so, improvisation is kind of like composing?”), what Feinberg was doing was new to some listeners. He answered gamely, but he might have offered more help during the performance itself – for example, announcing the titles of pieces that had them, and letting his listeners know when he was about to improvise freely, without the comparative safety of an existing piece.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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