Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Piano; Rhythm, Melody and Message

Ahmad Jamal, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, turns 82 in July of this year.  After settling in Chicago in the late 1940s, he recorded his first Lp in 1951 with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Eddie Calhoun (the group was known as The Three Strings).  In 1955, he switched to the piano-bass-drums format; Jamal signed to Argo Records (part of the Chess Records family) and, with bassist Israel Crosby plus drummer Vernel Fournier, made a slew of albums in the late 50s through the mid-60s. Since then, he's led a number of Trios, recorded with orchestras as well as vocalists, toured continuously throughout the world and inspired or influenced several generations of pianists and jazz musicians.

"Blue Moon" (Jazz Village) features his current group with its New Orleans rhythm section of Herlin Riley (drums) and Reginald Veal (bass) plus percussionist Manolo Badrena.  The music they create on this session is wonderfully seductive, rhythmically exciting, extremely melodic and, at many turns, pure fun.  The title track, composed by Rodgers & Hart in 1934, pulls the listener on the strength of Riley and Badrena's percussive interaction, Veal's bass line (a variation of the bass line in the "Acknowledgment" section of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme") and the pianist alternating 2-handed phrases and percussive chordal work.  If you have heard the mesmerizing work of the Australian piano trio The Necks, there are moments here where the band "riffs" hypnotically yet always come back to the melody.

Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation", a piece that's been recorded by countless jazz musicians for many decades (Jamal first put it on record in 1965), gets a similar treatment as "Blue Moon" but with even more influence of the percussion.  Riley and Badrena lock into the beat, pushing the pianist to exciting heights and dance-like figures.  Veal's solo bounces atop the beat sweetly before Jamal returns to the theme.   Dig the hip-hop influence in the drums on "This Is the Life" (from the musical "Golden Boy") and how Jamal works on the beat as well as playing around it with his fine melodic flourishes.

Right in the middle of the program are 2 fascinating ballads.  "I Remember Italy" (a Jamal original) is a lengthy excursion with minimal yet intriguing work from the band (implied rhythms, swirling percussion and a soft but supportive bass line).  The oft-recorded standard "Laura" is a showcase for Jamal's wonder-filled "stream-of-consciousness", fragments of the melody intertwined with flights of single-note lines and chordal fills, all with Veal tracing a rhythm with his solid bass work.

The CD closes with a playful reading of Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody'n You", a be-bop classic Jamal first recorded in 1958. The ensemble moves away from the original tempo yet suggests it throughout the performance, varying the tempo and the attack.

"Blue Moon" clocks in at over 75 minutes yet is so attractive I find myself not only playing the CD all the way through but playing certain tracks over again.  Herlin Riley is both supportive and creative while Manolo Badrena adds just the right spice whenever he's called on.  Because Ahmad Jamal's left hand work is so strong, one might suspect Reginald Veal's bass work to be superfluous;  instead, he 
 plays both timekeeper and counterpoint (when you pay attention to him, you'll notice his worth to the group.)  As for the leader, he's a master musician, combining melody and rhythm seamlessly, an "impressionist painter" at the keyboard. Ahmad Jamal might be 81 years old but, at the keyboard, his exuberance is ageless.  For more information, go to   

In 2009, the Vijay Iyer Trio (pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore) released "Historicity" (ACT Music) to great critical and public acclaim.  The exciting blend of contemporary rhythms, melodic adventures, creative re-imagining of standards and "pop" tunes, and Iyer's exploratory nature at the keyboard made for exhilarating listening.  On the surface, the Trio's new ACT CD, "Accelerando", looks like a similar adventure with several fascinating "cover" tunes, works by jazz legends (in this case, Herbie Nichols and Duke Ellington), a reinvention of a work by a modern master (Henry Threadgill) and strong original compositions.

However, the Trio has played numerous dates since its first CD and that time together has greatly enhanced the music.  Crump has been with Iyer for over a decade and Gilmore joined in 2005 (at the age of 18!) - this familiarity breeds trust and creativity.  Listening to the 11 tracks, one hears a cooperative and not a pianist plus rhythm section. Pieces like the Iyer original "Actions Speak" and the Trio's arrangement of Threadgill's "Little Pocket Size Demons" unfold organically, each musician's part matched to the other's. In the latter piece, listen how Crump's bowed bass weaves in and around the piano melody and how Gilmore's percussion converses with the bass.  In Iyer's liner notes, he states "music is action" going on to describe how the listener acts and reacts emotionally and physically.  The Trio takes "Human Nature" (the Michael Jackson hit composed by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis), pushing the bass and drums up front while Iyer interprets and reshapes the original melody.  In the middle, the piano vamp, built off the main theme, allows the bassist to move out front while Gilmore's polyrhythmic approach creates tension and release.

Scotty Hard's mix has the rhythm section, especially Crump's bass, at the volume level of the piano.  One hears how he both supports and plays in counterpoint to Iyer - "Lude" shows his versatility and also his deep feel for rhythm.  In the last third of the track, he locks in with Gilmore's solid beat, creating space for the piano to navigate around the funky rhythm.  The volatile "Action Speaks", at times, has all three players moving independently yet coming together - the drum solo creates a foundation that allows the piece to resolve in a peaceful manner.

Duke Ellington's "The Village of the Virgins" (from "The River Suite") closes the program on a gospel feel, Iyer's fine chordal work supported by Crump's wide-ranging bass lines and Gilmore's solid groove.  A reverential, soulful, piece that is a peaceful finish to a powerful recording.

What one encounters listening to the Vijay Iyer Trio is creative music at its finest.  "Accelerando" is music for the modern "dance" of life, searching for the soul that will allow us to communicate in these often maddening times.  For more information, go to

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