Thursday, March 7, 2013

More Pianos and A Touch of Classy Saxophone

After listening several times to the fine new recording from pianist Aaron Diehl, "The Bespoke Man's Narrative" (Mack Avenue), I realized how much this project reminds me of the work of the late composer/pianist John Lewis (1920-2001).  Lewis, perhaps best known as the founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, had a long and illustrious career.  He wrote and performed with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band in the 1940s and recorded with Miles Davis on "The Birth of the Cool." He played "Third-Stream" music with Gunther Schuller, helped to form the American Jazz Orchestra in 1985 and taught students through most of his adult life.

The instrumentation of Diehl's group mirrors that of the MJQ with Warren Wolf (vibraphone on 7 of the 10 tracks) and the highly-interactive rhythm section of David Wong (bass) and Rodney Green (drums).  The material is a blend of originals, standards and a trio arrangement of the "Forlane" or "3rd" section of Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin."  That final piece is the longest on the CD, nearly 11 minutes, and is a tour-de-force, especially the interaction of the piano, bass and drums.  The trio also offers a stately version of George Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"; the blend of Diehl's articulate piano lines and Wong's bowed bass atop the strong brush and cymbal work of Green is dynamically charged and so arresting. There is a sparkling quartet performance of "Moonlight in Vermont", with Wong's bass leading the way once more in the "intro" and chorus sections.   To heighten the comparison with the MJQ, there's a bluesy romp through Milt Jackson's "The Cylinder" (Jackson was the vibraphonist in that band, though this piece was not part of its repertoire.)

The young pianist (26 at the time of this recording) offers a splendid solo version of Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose" (from "The Queen's Suite".)  The dynamic variation, the intelligent use of silence in the verses, and the stunning, rippling, piano lines in the bridge of the song can put the listener in a reverie.

Among the original works are the playful "Stop and Go" (replete with abrupt changes of tempo), the driving "Generation Y" (the rhythm section work is exemplary) and the sweet ballad "Blue Nude."  On that last track, Wolf's sustained notes ring out over the piano, bass and drums. Diehl's elegant comping and stately solo, Green's "conversational" drums work and Wong's "walking" bass lines are as sweet as they are subtle.  "Prologue" and "Epilogue" (logically) open and close the program, first setting up the dynamics between the players and then serving to sum up the proceedings.  The bluesy and playful quality of the final track makes one want to go right back to the beginning.

"The Bespoke Man's Narrative" looks good, sounds good and is good.  Aaron Diehl, who has won a number of awards, could have made this recording all about his magnificent technique; instead, this is a definitely a "group" recording with all the musicians having their say in the success of this musical effort. I did not read the "press packet" until after I wrote the first draft of the review but the interview with the pianist mentions his connections to John Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Kirkland and others. One can certainly hear those connections but one also hears a fresh, young and creative musician at work and play, adding his "voice" to the continuum of the tradition.  For more information, go to

Although "Fun House" (Songlines Recordings) carries the by-line of the Benoît Delbecq and Fred Hersch Double Trio, one can and should view this fine program as a sextet date.  Yes, there are 2 rhythm sections - Steve Argüelles (drums, live electronics) and Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass) +  Mark Helias (bass) and Gerry Hemingway (drums) - but this is neither a "blowing" or "cutting" session.  Don't expect classy or clever re-arrangements of standards; Delbecq is the producer, he composed or co-composed all the material save for Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" that closes the session and it's his vision that sets the pace.That's not to intimate that Hersch is either a bystander or session player. The arrangement is such that one can not tell who is playing what at any given time (save for the instances of Argüelles' electronics.   So, toss away those expectations, relax and dig into this program.  

These pieces are more than songs, more than melodies - they are "creative conversations", musical
interactions that blur the lines between compositions and improvisations so one should not listen for particular solos but how the music moves - literally - flows from beginning to end.  One can concentrate on the bass counterpoint alongside the pianos in 'Ronchamp" and the blues-drenched piano intro to  "Fun House" that opens to a piece that seems like a meditation on the music of George Gershwin (but 
don't miss the playful percussion or the 2 bassists conversing after the halfway point.)

That's the approach to take with this CD. Let it play through, then go back, if you like, to concentrate on how Delbecq and Hersch interact or the interplay of the bassists or how both percussionists take different but complementary approaches to their contributions.  Remember that musicians "play" as they create and it's that sense of "playing" that inhabits "Fun House" - there are many serious moments but no angst, no over-wrought emotions.  For more information, go to and search for this CD on the "Catalogue" page - release date is March 12, 2013 but it is already available on iTunes, and

Saxophonist Eric Alexander is a musician who has, to my ears, has absorbed a myriad of influences and truly found his own sound.  Critics may point to his slew of recordings as a leader (34 in 21 years) or his work in One For All (17 CDs in 16 years) and say he rarely steps outside his comfort zone - I say "so what?"  If you pay close attention to his playing, his choice of material and the arrangements, what stands out is his consistency and lack of cliche (not easy for a tenor saxophonist playing "mainstream" jazz.

"Touching" (HighNote Records) is CD #35 and features his long-time associates John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums) and the irrepressible Harold Mabern on piano (who never allows this music to become maudlin or predictable.) The program, all ballads per request of Executive Producer Joe Fields, ranges from works by Michel LeGrand to John Coltrane to the r'n'b classic "Oh Girl."  Typical to their personal traditions, Alexander and Mabern (who first encountered the saxophonist as a student over 2 decades ago), the material and arrangements are anything but staid. "Central Park West", the beautiful Coltrane melody, has a pleasing "soul music" feel (although the bass solo seems out of place) and Alexander truly digs into his solo. "I'm Glad There is You" is from the pen of Jimmy Dorsey has been recorded by a slew of artists.  After a long reading of the theme, Mabern steps out over Farnsworth's classy brush work and delivers a joyful and playful solo.  Alexander's solo is also playful but really builds off the melody.  "Gone Too Soon", first recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1983 and made even more popular by Michael Jackson in 1991 (the song appears on the "Dangerous" album), is a lovely piece; Alexander finds the emotional heart of the piece and plays without over-sentimentalizing the music.

One of the highlights of the recording is the piano/saxophone duet on "Dinner for One Please James", a piece long associated with Nat "King" Cole.  Mabern's stride-like piano backing is the perfect accompaniment for the saxophonist's handsome and, yes, playful romp through the verses.

Recorded by legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder in his classic New Jersey studios, "Touching" has much to recommend it to the fan of good music (although the mix tends to be obscure Webber's bass lines in the favor of Farnsworth's drums and cymbals.)  Messrs. Alexander and Mabern make these songs come alive by respecting the melody and injecting their improvisatory spirit.  For a taste of this music, go to

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