By Doug Collett
The very first notes of the Brad Mehldau Trio's Ode sound rich, lyrical and full of energy. This may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the pianist's work, but loyal followers of Mehldau know he brings an unusual intensity to his work, particularly his solo projects and the collaborations with his trio (currently bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard). This, the first studio trio recording since Day Is Done (Nonesuch, 2005), is no exception.
Thus, a homage to the late saxophonist Michael Brecker, "M.B.," might serve as a dramatic conclusion to another artist's album, but here opens a non-stop stream of invention. Multiple eclectic threads appear in Mehldau's playing: classical, ragtime, pop and blues are only the most obvious components of a personal style in which the pianist not only executes the structure, but also communicates the emotional quotient intrinsic to each genre as well.
In a restatement of the main melodic motif of "26," the threesome take some relative respite during the otherwise breathless performance, while "Dream Sketch" lives up to its evocative title: piano, bass and drums subtly tradeoff rhythm amid melodic duties during the course of the track. The individual virtuosity and collective camaraderie of Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard is a wonder to hear because it is so rare and so deeply ingrained in their relationship.
The trio is in tune not just with each other but with the material itself. Each musician proffers intricate detail on their respective instrument. In his explanatory essay on the CD's enclosed booklet, Mehldau explains the thought process behind the conception and execution of composing and playing in general, but also as it applies to Ode; the deep thought and reflection he brings to his writing and performance also illuminates the creative process in general.
Not surprisingly, there is an inherent musicality to the prose, similar to that which arises from Mehldau's musicianship and that of his band mates. The dynamics are impeccable as the individual selections unfolds as an album; while Mehldau sets the tone on a given cut, such as the playful air on "Twiggy," it is at the initial appearance of the rhythm section, when it picks up on that atmosphere, that grows exponentially through the track. Each musician embroiders the tune itself and interacts with his partners in a lighter than air piece that, like the other 11 tracks here, becomes a direct reflection of its subject (here a facetious nickname for Brad Mehldau's wife).
Other sources of song on Ode include the pianist's child ("Days of Dilbert Delaney"), other musicians ("Kurt Vibe," for guitarist Rosenwinkel), motion picture characters ("Eulogy for George Hanson," Jack Nicholson's character in the film Easy Rider) and comic book heroes ("Aquaman"). The explanation of the imaginary persona of "Stan The Man" reaffirms that, contrary to his often dour expression-not to mention the academic tone of his prose-Brad Mehldau does indeed have a sense of humor.
In the cover photos of the disc, the musicians in the Brad Mehldau Trio are beginning to show their age, but the graying hair and lines on their respective visages, like the music within the digi-pak, is a sign of the maturity, experience and wisdom they present with uncommon clarity.
M.B.; Ode; 26; Dream Sketch; Bee Blues; Twiggy; Kurt Vibe; Stan the Man; Eulogy for George Hanson; Aquaman; Days of Dilbert Delaney.
Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.
Yoko Miwa Trio
Live at Scullers Jazz Club
By Dan McClenaghan
Is live always better? Does the no second takes, out-on-a-limb aspect of playing in front of a live audience, and feeding off its energy result in the best recordings? It seems to work that way for Boston-based pianist Yoko Miwa on Live At Scullers Jazz Club, a mix of tunes from The Great American Songbook and the world of rock, shuffled in with her own outstanding compositions. An original pressing of a hundred copies of the show—done as a memento for the audience members this particular night—garnered such a positive response that Miwa decided to have the music remixed and mastered for a general release.
Miwa displays an impressive stylistic range. Opening with a rousing take of Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something," the pianist and her trio mix a bouncy elegance with a full-bore forward momentum. Miwa treats the melody with reverence, riding a inexorable rhythmic wave supplied by bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Scott Goulding. Virtuosic but unrelentingly accessible, the pianist stretches out, taking eleven minutes to explore this Great American Songbook gem with glorious grace.
Miwa, in the manner of fellow pianist Brad Mehldau, is no jazz snob. She doesn't limit herself to the standards. She covers Steven Tyler's (of Aerosmith) dark toned "Seasons of Wither," giving the tune sparkle, and turns in a pensively beautiful rendition of Lou Reed's Velvet Underground song, "Who Loves the Sun?," featuring the trio at its most interactive.
Miwa adds three of her own top-notch compositions to the mix. "The Wheel of Life" rises and falls to mirror the vicissitudes, struggles, joys and sorrows of human existence. "Mr. B. G." is a nod to pianist Benny Green and, through Green, his mentor Oscar Peterson, with an ebullient groove and Miwa's exquisitely succinct touch.
Trumpeter Art Farmer's "Mox Nix" shows off Miwa's ability to get deep into the blues and play with a muscular left hand percussion married to a lightning fast right hand, before ending with vocalist Milton Nascimento's "A Festa." It's a saucy closer, with the trio immersing itself in a gorgeous Brazilian groove to wrap up a stunningly spontaneous live set, Miwa's best recording to date.
This Could Be the Start of something; Wheel of Life; Mr. B.G.; Seasons of wither; Who Loves the Sun; Silent Promise; Mox Nix; A Festa.
Yoko Miwa: piano; Greg Loughman: bass; Scott goulding: drums.
Steve Kuhn Trio
By John Kelman
Context, they say, is everything. With nearly 50 albums as a leader in a career that now spans 55 years—and stints with everyone from saxophonist Stan Getz and flugelhornist Art Farmer to trumpeter Kenny Dorham...even a brief stint with saxophonist John Coltrane—pianist Steve Kuhn's best and most varied work has been across the now-ten albums recorded for ECM. You need only look to Life's Backward Glances: Solo and Quartet (ECM, 2008)—the box collecting 1975's solo piano outing, Ecstasy; 1977's Motility, with his Ecstasy group; and 1980's Playground, the first of two recordings with singer Sheila Jordan—for a localized example of Kuhn's far-reaching outlook on the label that brought transparency and pristine sonic clarity to the jazz world.
Wisteria looks like a standard piano trio outing in contrast to the stellar Mostly Coltrane (ECM, 2009), Kuhn's tribute to his erstwhile employer, with Joe Lovano more than ably filling the tenor chair with a distinctly personal approach. But with electric bassist Steve Swallow replacing Kuhn trio regular, double bassist David Fincke, Wisteria becomes something else again. Sure, Swallow does what a bassist should do (should do, being a dangerous phrase when used to describe players of this caliber): anchor the groove and swing with aplomb. But his warm electric instrument, so often played in the upper register, often crosses into guitar range, making Swallow a more pervasive melodic foil for Kuhn—and one who, like Kuhn, has, by this time in his own 50-plus year career, got nothing left to prove. Likewise drummer Joey Baron, at 56 the relative babe of the group despite collaborating with Kuhn since 1996's Remembering Tomorrow (ECM).
In addition to bringing a fresh perspective to four tracks first recorded on Promises Kept (ECM, 2004)—his thankfully non-saccharine "with strings" project—Kuhn revisits two tracks from outside his ECM work. The comfortably swinging "Chalet," first heard on Countdown (Reservoir, 1998), opens Wisteria with a rubato intro that, by now, has become something of a Kuhn trademark, while the more intense "A Likely Story," from the Japan-only Temptation (Venus, 2003), is driven here by Swallow's near-relentlessly walking bass, peppered with Baron's sharp punctuations. It features one of Kuhn's most flat-out expressionist solos of the set, filled with a kind of unshackled virtuosity that makes his underrated position on the totem pole of important jazz pianists of the last half century an ongoing mystery. Kuhn has all the chops he needs, when he needs them, but never at the expense of building solos of spontaneous construction, always imbued with a distinct sense of form and purpose.
Swallow's reputation as an electric bassist nonpareil is matched only by his renown as a composer with more than one tune a part of the jazz lexicon. Still, the Latin-esque "Dark Glasses" and buoyant closer, "Good Lookin' Rookie," will be new to even the most studied Swallow-phile. Carla Bley's equally little-known ambler, "Permanent Wave," and Art Farmer's balladic title track round out a program of eleven songs that make Wisteria yet another milestone in Kuhn's discography, and a more than worthy follow-up to the critically acclaimed Mostly Coltrane.
Chalet; Adagio; Morning Dew; Romance; Permanent Wave; A Likely Story; Pastorale; Wisteria; Dark Glasses; Promises Kept; Good Lookin' Rookie.
Steve Kuhn: piano; Steve Swallow: bass; Joey Baron: drums.
Ran Blake & Dominique Eade
By Christopher Loudon at JazzTimes
Simpatico relationships between vocalists and pianists—Shearing and Cole; Evans and Bennett; Bill Charlap and his mother, Sandy Stewart—are hardly unusual. Occasionally, though, such unions transcend sympathetic rapport and become truly empathetic. The finest example on record emerged in 1961, when trailblazing third-stream pianist Ran Blake and singer Jeanne Lee commingled on The Newest Sound Around. Now, a half-century later, Blake achieves very near the same magnificence with Dominique Eade. Actually, these 13 tracks were recorded a while ago, in sessions dating from 2004 and 2008. In fact, this album has been 30 years in the making, demonstrating the continual evolution of their shared sensibility from their first meeting, when Eade transferred to the New England Conservatory expressly for the opportunity to study with Blake (she has long since joined him on the faculty).
When Blake indulges his penchant for film-noir atmospherics, as on “My Foolish Heart,” Eade provides ideally sly and shadowy responses, expertly playing the cunning Bacall to his Bogart. When she reinvestigates her own, hymnlike “Go Gently to the Water” (also included on her previous album, Open, with her NEC mentee, pianist Jed Wilson), Blake paves the way for a freshly ethereal reading. How they pace one another through “Falling,” like concordant harmonic acrobats, is dazzling. It is, however, their two interpretations of “Dearly Beloved,” one coolly cerebral, the other raw with desire, that best demonstrate their interpretive kinship.
By Dan Bilawsky
Chicago-born/New York-bred vocalist Alexis Parsons has often worked with trios, but pares down the instrumental backing for this self-titled release. Alexis Parsons presents eight numbers that pair the singer with piano ace Frank Kimbrough, whose classy, top-shelf accompaniment, combined with Parsons' lovely and occasionally languorous vocals, bring a pleasant, sleepy quality to this music.
A-list material from the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Hello Young Lovers"), Benny Carter and Sammy Cahn ("Only Trust Your Heart"), and Michel LeGrand and the Bergman's ("You Must Believe In Spring"), demonstrates good taste in the programming department, and Parsons treats each number with the respect it deserves. Six of the eight pieces are slow-drifting numbers that bloom under the care of Kimbrough and Parsons, but the two selections that stand apart from the rest operate in different rhythmic arenas. "Just Squeeze Me" has the requisite amount of vocal sauciness, without ever tipping the balance with overly coquettish behavior, and Kimbrough has a good time, as he shows that he can play the role of the swinging barroom pianist as well as anybody. The other number that's a departure-of-sorts is the oft-covered "Only Trust Your Heart." Kimbrough sets this song adrift with steady piano work that screams for some bossa nova drum backing, but this duo does just fine without it.
The remaining six tracks are glacial and graceful, and they largely succeed due to this pair's willingness to slowly draw out the flavors in each one. While Parsons is occasionally a tad over-dramatic ("The Winter Of My Discontent'), she touches on the right emotional frequencies more often than not, and Kimbrough provides harmonic cushioning that's refined and riveting in its beauty. While the program leans heavily on standards, Parsons looks beyond the jazz borders with "She," from Secret Life (Island, 1995)—Marianne Faithfull's collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti. While the source for this song is dissimilar from the rest, the execution of the number makes it feel right at home.
Album highlights, like the icy-turned-impressionistic "Lazy Afternoon" and album-closing "You Must Believe In Spring," tend to highlight Parsons' ability to slowly parcel out a melody in her own inimitable way, but she deserves as much credit for her storytelling abilities as she does for her singing. She inhabits these songs as if they represent her very being, making Alexis Parsons an alluring listen from start to finish.
The Winter of My Discontent; Hello Young Lovers; Just Squeeze Me; Lazy Afternoon; Only Trust Your Heart; Make It Last; She; You Must Believe In Spring.
Alexis Parsons: vocals; Frank Kimbrough: piano.
Vijay Iyer Trio
by Thom Jurek
It's almost impossible not to consider Accelerando by pianist Vijay Iyer's working trio with bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore a companion to 2009's excellent Historicity. Its obvious similarities are that it places a handful of originals alongside a host of cover versions. These come from well-known artists from the worlds of jazz, 21st century dance music, and R&B. But there are key differences, too: for starters, this trio has been together longer; nowhere does that matter more than it does in jazz. The intuitive interplay and collective mindset that this trio possesses are exponentially more mature than they were on Historicity, despite its sharpness and musical acumen. The willingness to take chances is greater, as is the ability to make those risks pay off. Take the reading of "Human Nature," a tune recorded by Michael Jackson for the iconic Thriller. The melody is irresistible and Iyer maintains its framework while he builds on it by syncopating, extrapolating, and coloring it so that it becomes rich with complexity and textures, all the while keeping its melodic integrity. The rhythmic pulse is doubled on the snare, hi-hat, and bass drum. Crump's bass accompanies rather than propels, so his bass is where the groove lies. Heatwave's "The Star of a Story" is likewise melodically intact, but its rhythmic basics are set on a groove that finds funk in waltz time. Iyer discovers subtleties and hidden harmonic corners in his middle register that are remarkable to anyone familiar with the tune. "Mmmhmm," by Flying Lotus and singing bassist Thundercat, is realized with bowed basslines by Crump that both accompany the melody and state it, sparse chordal suggestions by Iyer in the higher register, and a gradually increasing vamp by Gilmore (that sounds like a defective loop because of its intentional slippage), all of which enchant the listener enough to provide Iyer the opportunity to solo using knotty clusters of post-bop dissonance and lyricism. Herbie Nichols' "Wildflower" swings hard with its lean angular line accenting his use of the piano as both a palette of tonal colors and a rhythm instrument. Iyer's own tunes, such as the title track and "Lude," reveal an extensive, purposeful build on jazz history from Thelonious Monk (in the latter) to the future (in the former), where dynamic repetition and gradually complex harmonic multiplications result from simple beginnings. What's most remarkable about these tunes, and the others here, are how consciously danceable they are. The set closes with Duke Ellington's "The Village of the Virgins," from his and Alvin Ailey's jazz ballet entitled The River. The river is obviously the Mississippi; gospel, blues, early jazz, swing, and even 1940s R&B make their voices heard in a nearly processional strut. The trio's interplay takes the structure -- originally performed by a jazz orchestra -- and boils it down to its essences, leaving space for nuance, grace, and elegance. Accelerando is a triumph in creativity and expert musicianship, and further underscores Iyer's status as a genuine jazz innovator.