Pianist Enrico Pieranunzi isn't the only artist influenced by Kenny Wheeler's classic Gnu High. It's a safe bet that the trumpeter's 1976 debut as a leader for ECM, featuring the perfect line-up of pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, has been one of small group jazz's most influential albums of the past thirty years; as remarkable for Wheeler's inimitable writing as its unparalleled performances. Few, however, get the opportunity to recruit Wheeler in the same quartet context for an album perhaps lacking the "classic" stamp of Gnu High, but coming darn close. With seven Pieranunzi compositions and two group improvisations of complete spontaneity but equally immediate compositional focus, the pianist augments his existing trio of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron with Wheeler, making As Never Before an appropriately titled disc that actually manages to surpass Pieranunzi's career-defining Live in Japan (Cam Jazz, 2007).
Pieranunzi, Johnson and Baron may not have the cachet of Jarrett, Holland and DeJohnette. Still, over the past quarter century they've established themselves individually as comfortable in a variety of environments and, now early into its third decade, a trio capable of musical empathy akin to that Johnson experienced with his first major employer, the late legend Bill Evans. Pieranunzi, like most modern pianists, owes much to Evans, but he's long since transcended Evans as an overt reference point. If there's any pianist with whom he shares much these days it's John Taylor, who has worked regularly with Wheeler for five decades, making the Pieranunzi/Wheeler pairing an equally winning combination.
Nor is this Pieranunzi's first recorded encounter with Wheeler. FelliniJazz (Cam Jazz, 2004) also brought the two together, but on a set of music culled largely from soundtracks to films of the great Frederico Fellini, and with a line-up possessing its own strength but lacking the simpatico inherent in a group that's worked together for twenty-five years. FelliniJazz's strength was in how its players found common ground to interpret non-original music with their own voices; written with this line-up in mind, As Never Before even more successfully speaks to the players' individual strengths.
And what strengths. Baron, beginning as a vivacious and raucous player on the downtown New York scene, has evolved into a drummer of great nuance, swinging lightly alongside Johnson on "Time's Passage" while energetically punctuating without losing sight of the song's evocative resonance. Johnson, a most elegant and lyrical bassist, is the litmus test for perfection in instantaneous choice, balancing rhythm section responsibilities with a conversational approach that feeds Pieranunzi's own thematic disposition to solo building.
And what of Wheeler? Approaching eighty, his peerless technique shows no signs of weakening, with every solo combining his unmistakable melancholy melodism with a nearly unequaled ability to deliver perfection, take after take. Quintessential modern mainstream jazz, As Never Before blends traditional elements with European classicism and, like its players, is as unassuming as it is stellar; as honest, committed and selfless as intimate, small group jazz gets.
Personnel: Enrico Pieranunzi: piano; Marc Johnson: bass: Joey Baron: drums; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet, flugelhorn.