Bet it's being done right now, near you.
In an intimate, upscale restaurant, a piano trio, led by the tired cat on the bench, is trying really hard to fuel the "ambiance." And, given this is the domain generally reserved for hacks, odds are it's failing miserably. Not that many of the patrons ever even look up from their steaks long enough to notice. Tragic.
But, to the eternal credit of those nameless, time-marking threesomes around the globe, it takes a ton of guts to play piano in a trio in a post-Garner/Evans/Peterson world. It's not like playing horn or guitar in front of a rhythm section, you can't turn the clunkers into jewels by slurring or smearing any missed notes. If you overreach or hit a bum chord you're naked and it's hanging right there, clear as day, for your sidemen to grimace over and the audience to choke on. No doubt this is why so many of the more commercially successful trios feature pianists who sing; besides giving the notoriously impatient general populace some lyrics to follow, a vocal can be a convenient smokescreen for the keyboardist's potential shortcomings as instrumentalist - Nat "King" Cole and Mose Allison being two obvious exceptions to this theory. But still there are those instrumentalists brave enough to try. And, in the case of these excellent new outings by the trios of David Hazeltine and Tardo Hammer, we should thank the stars for that.
David Hazeltine Trio
Close to You
We have Chet Baker to thank for urging the Milwaukee-born Hazeltine to get his bench-worn butt to New York City. Upon arrival in 1992, Hazeltine teamed up with bass ace Peter Washington and drummer Louis Hayes; Joe Farnsworth now occupies the drum stool and also plays in Hazeltine's and Washington's other outfit, the hard bop quartet One For All. Brisk, melodic, and razor-sharp, Hazeltine's Tatum/Powell-informed chops lend themselves well to deconstructing standards ("You Don't Know What Love Is," "I'm Old Fashioned") and pop tunes (The Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow," on Four Flights Up, a 1995 quartet date featuring Slide Hampton). And what a great little band he has: Washington strokes and walks his lines with strident ease, while Art Taylor protege' Farnsworth's shimmering cymbals and snappy snare keep the set riveting and tight. No stranger to Burt Bacharach - in the past he's tackled "I Say a Little Prayer," "What the World Needs Now," and, of course, "The Look of Love" - the title cut finds Hazeltine leading the crew through a breakneck, Bud Powell-spiked version of one of the composer's biggest hits; no surprise it leaves The Carpenters' in the dust. Further plums include some fine originals like the shifting "Waltzing at Suite One" and "Minor Adjustment," a cunning revamp of "Close to You."
While Hazeltine's strong suits are his stunning facility and heartfelt melodic tact, Tardo Hammer plays more from his gut and his brain. Schooled by Lennie Tristano disciple Sam Mosca, Hammer's bent lines and crooked chords echo Monk as well as Tristano. His exquisite melancholia, however, is pure Monk - filtered through his own experiences, of course. Hammer also shows a far surer grip on the blues than most neo-boppers can muster; check the album's lone original, the dark and creeping "Journey to Liechtenstein." (Plus, the guy has some pluck: who else could call his 1999 debut album Hammer Time and get away with it?) But don't let the dearth of Hammer compositions give you the idea this is just another set of standards. These pieces - Tommy Flanagan's "Minor Mishap," Kenny Dorham's "Philly Twist," the Mabel Wayne lullaby "Little Man (You've Had a Busy Day)" - besides being some unexpectedly deep nuggets, are golden testimony to this outfit's method of striving hard to reinvent the jazz repertoire. Look no further than the disc's very beginning, the hitherto forgotten evergreen "Last Time I Saw Paris," which starts with Hammer's amorous, poetic caresses before being swept up by the irresistible swing of bassist Dennis Irwin (a frequent Mose sideman) and drummer Jimmy Wormworth (a veteran of everyone from Johnny Copeland to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross). The latter two are responsible for many of the program's memorable moments, such as Irwin's inward-looking solo on the Dizzy/Sarah number "I Waited For You," or Wormworth's around-the-world break on "Russian Lullaby." A record with a welcome raw edge, Tardo's Tempo is also one of the finest illustrations of a fun, relaxed bop session in quite some time. More, please.
David Hazeltine Trio - Close to You
Tracks: 1-Close to You 2-Waltzing at Suite One 3-I'm Old Fashioned 4-You Don't Know What Love Is 5-Barbara 6-Buddy's Tune 7-Blues for P. Wash 8-Minor Adjustment 9-I'll Only Miss her 10-Willow Weep for Me.
Personnel: David Hazeltine - piano; Peter Washington - bass; Joe Farnsworth - drums.
Tardo Hammer - Tardo's Tempo
Tracks: 1-Last Time I Saw Paris 2-I Waited for You 3-Russian Lullaby 4-Philly Twist 5-Journey to Liechtenstein 6-Minor Mishap 7-Very Early 8-Little Man (You've Had a Busy Day) 9-Thelonious.
Personnel: Tardo Hammer - piano; Jimmy Wormworth - drums; Dennis Irwin - bass.