Saturday, January 23, 2016

Pianists to the Fore

When one stops to think about it, 2016 is a heady time for piano trios. From Fred Hersch to The Bad Plus, Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio to 3-somes led by Kenny Barron, Kenny Werner, Yaron Herman, Shai Maestro, Romain Collin and Jason Moran (and so many more), all kinds of musicale being made around the world every night and day. It's not just economics, I think, but a logical evolution of the music from the days of Errol Garner, George Shearing, Bill Evans and the seemingly indefatigable Ahmad Jamal (85 years old).
Throw into that mix the fine pianist Bill Charlap.  Over the past 18 - almost 19 - the pianist has led a trio featuring bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation) .  Together, they have issued a series of recordings for Blue Note Records and on the Venus label from Japan (Charlap has recorded several CDs for the label with bassist Jay Leonhardt and drummer Bill Stewart under the monicker New York Trio).  In 2015, the Charlap Trio backed Tony Bennett on the "The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern."

Charlap and the Washingtons will be in residence this Friday and Saturday night (1/29-30) at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT.  They'll play several sets of music, new and old, and they;ll do so melodically yet with a rhythmic fire.  Would not be surprised if the shows are sold out so call 860-434-0886 or go to to get your name on the list.

The following Friday (Feb. 5), guitarist Lionel Loueke brings his Trio to Old Lyme and you won't ant to miss that show!


Before recording his 3 CD as a leader, pianist and composer Florian Hoefner moved from New York City to St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.  He had been in tumult of the Big Apple since relocating from Berlin, Germany, in 2008 to study at the Manhattan School of Music.  Hoefner had  already recorded several albums in Germany with a quartet known as Subtone as well as a pair of CDs with saxophonist Roman Ott (one disk featured guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel with whom the pianist had studied.) Those experiences helped him with his vision for his original music and the subsequent "sound" of his own band.

photo by Krysta Brayer
His debut recording as a leader , "Songs Without Words", was issued in 2012 on the Seattle, WA-based OA2 Records label as was 2013's "Falling Up."  His quartet, dubbed the Florian Hoefner Group, included bassist Sam Anning, drummer Peter Knonreif, and saxophonist Mike Ruby.  He has moved to OA2's mother label Origin Records for his new album, "Luminosity", 8 songs that feature the same rhythm section but now finds Seamus Blake on saxophones.  The music reflects his move to the Northern climes with pieces such as the exciting "Newfound Jig", the introspective "North Country" and the brilliant (as in the quality of light in St. John's) title track.  The blend of Blake's soprano sax (he is beholden to no one for his singular sound) and the rippling piano lines plus the highly sympathetic rhythm section make that track stand out.  The "Jig" shows its Irish roots at the outset before the band moves into more of a "swing" beat - yet, listen to how Kronreif takes the music in unexpected directions without anyone losing his way.

One hears the influence of the Keith Jarrett European Quartet in the high energy of "Elements" and, even there. the music takes a quick turn into a melodic bass solo.  When the pianist reenters, the intensity slowly but assuredly returns, propelled by the active rhythm section. After another downshift, Blake enters on tenor saxophone, easily dancing atop the shifting rhythmic landscape. The saxophonist effortlessly shifts into higher gear without losing his melodic side.

All of the 8 tracks (all Hoefner originals) clock in over 5 minutes; still, the composer and the band do not just play the theme and rush into long solos.  Listen for the interplay, as this is a band that has logged serious "stage time", and you can hear how supportive they are.  Sure they can "blow" - all 4 have a great time on "The Bottom Line" - but everything is played with a purpose with the sense of a group sound.

"Luminosity" will hold your interest with its expansive melodies, its fine rhythm section, and intelligent solos.  The Florian Hoefner Group is a "working band" and it shows in the care they and creativity they give to this music.  For more information, go to

Give a listen to the title track:

Over the past decade+, Cuban-born pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz has been impressing audiences and critics  alike with his lively piano playing and impressive blend of Cuban, Latin and African rhythms.  His 2013 recording with bassist Michael Janisch, "Banned In London", released on Janisch's Whirlwind Recordings, stood out for many reasons, not the least of which was the pianist's lively interactions with saxophonist Greg Osby.  He's worked and recorded with trombonist Steve Turre, trumpeter Wallace Roney, and bassist Esperanza Spalding (among others).

For his new album, "Hidden Voices" (Intakt Records), he joins forces with bassist Eric Revis (Branford Marsalis Quartet, Tarbaby) and drummer Gerald Cleaver (Craig Taborn, Joe Morris, Roscoe Mitchell) to fashion a most fascinating sound.  The 10-song program includes 6 originals, one collective improvisation, a medley 2 Ornette Coleman works ("Open & Close/The Sphinx"), "Skippy" by Thelonious Monk and a Cuban standard "Uno, Dos, y Tres, Que Paso Más Chévere" done as a piano solo.  That final song (also the last track on the disk, composed by Rafael Ortiz (no relation), is described by leader as a tune “everybody in Cuba knows from festivities and carnivals." The younger Ortiz gives the song an abstract feel, hinting at the rhythm and the pianist caressing the melody.

Photo by Michael Weintrob
Elsewhere. Ortiz and company create an open-ended program, from the disjointed yet funky opener "Fractal Sketches"  to the inventive re-imagining of "Skippy."  On the latter track, Revis propels the music from the bottom while Cleaver and Ortiz spin fascinating webs from the spiky melody.  The pianist pushes the melody up and down (at times, sounding somewhat like Matthew Shipp) while the piece rumbles forward. "Caribbean Vortex/Hidden Voices" features the insistent claves of Arturo Stable and Enildo Rasúa, the rhythms supporting the rapid-fire snare work of Cleaver and clanging left hand of the pianist.  As the piece moves forward, the piano solo grows in intensity but the rhythms stay steady and solid.  The hypnotic single-note piano leads one into "Analytical Symmetry", a piece that opens slowly like a flower then explodes for just a moment before moving inward for a bass - piano dialogue.  The 2-part "Arabesques of a Geometrical Rose" opens with a piano solo.  Subtitled "Spring", the melody, in places, reminds this writer of Monk in its uncommon beauty. Part 2, "Summer", brings back the rhythm section for a blues-drenched reinterpretation of the initial melody. Revis's thick bass tones and Cleaver's active drumming propel the pianist into a series of short single-note runs interspersed with "dark" chords. 

Repetition is important to many of these pieces  - the piano lines often dictate the rhythms that Gerald Cleaver expands upon while the often-furious bass lines of Eric Revis work in counterpoint to active hands of Aruán Ortiz.  "Hidden Voices" may refer to the Cuban artists, poets, playwrights, and musicians who have had to maintain personal and artistic silence for most of the Castro dictatorship. This powerful music now belongs to the world.  For more information, go to

Here's the Trio in concert 6 months before the recording date:

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