Friday, June 28, 2013

3-2-1 Piano

In jazz, when friends get together to play, the results are often quite relaxed yet fun for the avid listener.  "River Edge, New Jersey" (Azica Records) is the work...well, play, of the Bill Cunliffe Trio featuring pianist/composer Cunliffe with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Tim Horner. The pianist has known and worked with the rhythm section on numerous occasion in different settings since the 1990s.  One listen to this CD, recorded in 2011 in Manfred Knoop's studio, located in the city that lends its name to the recording's title, and you can hear friends having great fun.

Cunliffe, who first came to notice as a pianist and arranger with the Buddy Rich Band before going on to play with Frank Sinatra, Freddie Hubbard and James Moody, is a facile pianist with an unerring penchant for melodies as well as being a rhythmical soloist.  The program opens in a funky mood, with Horner and Wind leading the pianist into "Sweet Andy" - the result is an infectious jaunty romp. There are moments throughout the CD where Cunliffe rides atop the forward motion of the rhythm section.  Harry Nilsson's "One (Is The Loneliest Number" is another powerful tune, taking its cue from the Three Dog Night version.  The pianist's two-handed attack is quite appealing. "All Is Full of Love", composed by Bjork for her 1999 "Homogenic" album, is a sweet ballad while Cunliffe's "For Wanda" has a more emotional feel, starting slowly and picking up in intensity (the melody is played by both bass and piano).

The 2 Brazilian numbers, the well-known "..Girl From Ipanema" and the pianist's own work, "Choro"(from "Nostalgia in Corcovado"), show the versatility of the Trio.  The former moves away from the (expected) bossa nova rhythm into a more "open" feel in both the piano work and how the drummer controls the song.  The latter is reprised from a 2009 recording that bears the name of the suite and was recorded with a sextet Cunliffe dubbed "Trimotif."  It has a dizzying melody line and sprightly rhythms.

On the surface, "River Edge, New Jersey" may look like a typical piano trio recording but the spirited play of Bill Cunliffe, Martin Wind and Tim Horner lift this music far above the mundane.  If I have one criticism, it's that there is a bass solo in just about every tune.  The upside of that comment is Wind is such a melodic player, he acquits himself admirably throughout.   Pour a glass of rose or pink lemonade, sit back and enjoy the ride.  For more information, go to

George Shearing (1919-2011) had a long and illustrious career, culminating in a Knighthood in 2007.  The native of the Battersea area of London, England, moved to the United States in 1947 and went to record dozens of Lps and CDs, performing for Presidents, receiving numerous awards and honorariums,  and winning several GRAMMYs.

In 1982, the pianist joined forces Canadian-born bassist Don Thompson and they worked together for nearly 6 years. In January of the following year, the duo had a 6-week residency in a New York City club.  Shearing lived in the City and his apartment had a lovely grand piano;  he and Thompson would play in the afternoons before gigs.  The bassist suggested they record their sessions - the result, 30+ years in the making, is "George Shearing At Home" (Proper Note/Jazzknight Records).  Shearing always had wonderful technical skills but was also known for the intimacy of his ballad work.  In the comfort of his own living room, the pianist had no reason to hurry, no one to please but himself, making this CD a welcome addition to his large discography.

The bulk of the material is standards but there are also an abundance of surprises.  The bassist contributed "Ghoti", an uptempo blues that Shearing frolics through as he does on the duo reading of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." They are also in complete sync on "Subconscious Lee" and take a pleasant jaunt through the traditional Scottish tune, "The Skye Boat Song." But, it is the ballads that takes one's breath away. The solo reading of "I Cover The Waterfront", the Johnny Green composition from 1933, is stunning, emotional, with bows to DeBussy and "Over The Rainbow." Shearing also goes it alone on "Laura", a song he probably performed dozens of times.  Here, he caresses the melody, taking his time to both enjoy its lyrical nature and the colors he spontaneously contributes.  The CD closes with "Beautiful Love", a song from 1931 that Thompson says in the liner notes, "I never heard him play it before and he never played it again."  The performance is, in a word, stunning.

"George Shearing At Home" is not just for completists; in fact, this lovely disk can serve to introduce the pianist to a whole new generation.  George Shearing and Don Thompson, in the privacy of the pianist's living room, struck gold - 30 years later, we are the lucky beneficiaries.  No website to send you to for more information but you can check out the tracks at

When one stops to think about solo piano music, especially as it relates to Black American Music and its international off-shoots, there are recordings you can listen to with a crowd of people (think Art Tatum, Meade Lux Lewis and Art Hodes) and others made for late at night by yourself.  In the 1970s, Keith Jarrett began a series of solo piano recordings that set the standard (so to speak) for the late night crowd, introspective music that often included rolling rhythms but mostly stuck to slower tempi.

Born in Finland (where he still resides), Esa Helasvuo first studied classical music; it was his older brother who turned his attention to American music.  By the age of 10, he has his own jazz trio and, by the early 1960s, he was playing interpretations of works by Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. After high school, he did his compulsory military service and, at the end of that decade, was working as a dramaturg for the theatrical department of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, a gig that came him the opportunity to write and arrange music for productions. His influences changed, shifting to the afore-mentioned Jarrett and, surprise, Frank Zappa. In 1975, he joined the faculty of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki where he stayed until his retirement in 2008. Along the way, he composed and performed music in a variety of ensembles, from small-group to chamber orchestra to arranging music for vocalists. Hevasulo also made numerous recordings, especially solo piano CDs but few, if any, are available in the United States (none on iTunes or in the catalog.)

"Stella Nova" (TUM Records) leans more to the Keith Jarrett style of solo piano.  The majority of the 10 tracks are improvisations, several of which include themes that Hevasvuo has used in other pieces plus one composition by Finnish guitarist and composer of tangos, Unto Mononen (1930-1968). The program commences with the lovely "To Feel You Us To Love You"; to his credit (and our interest), this work is really a long melodic line. Thee is a darker shade can be heard to the title track, a long (9:14) improvisation that, in its opening few minutes, uses plenty of silence to set off the dramatic melody.  When Hevasvuo drops into a rhythm, the music has the feel of an Indian raga as well as one of Jarrett's pieces that emphasizes the trance-like left hand.  He follows that forceful work with the dream-like "Intimacy", its soft melodic lines suggesting a ballad sung by Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday yet also displays a classical side. The Mononen work, "Satumaa", has a handsome melody that Hevasuvo improvises upon without losing the emotional quality of the opening theme.  The final track, "Blues Addiction", a lovely and loving coda to the program, a wistful recollection of the pianist's many years of listening, composing and playing.

TUM Records is doing a fine job of exposing Finnish improvising musicians to the international scene (not to forget the great releases by Billy Bang, Wadada Leo Smith, the splendid new CD by Barry Altschul and others).  Listeners who enjoy internal monologues translated to piano should take the time to investigate "Stella Nova" and Esa Hevasvuo.  For more information, go to

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