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Back in Town commemorates veteran pianist Rob Schneiderman's return to New York City after a six-year absence (he was in California getting a Ph.D. in mathematics) and is his first recording since 2001's Edgewise. Recorded in one day in January of 2004, Back in Town is a standards album of exceptional musicianshipSchneiderman's chops are completely unaffected by any time off and I suspect he's been finding time to playbut very unexceptional chemistry among the members of the trio (which includes bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Johnathan Blake).
The album's shortcomings are exemplified by the opener, a breakneck-tempoed version of "Darn that Dream." Schneiderman's eagerness to play is undeniable: he charges off like a racehorse, and all three players sound terrific. Kozlov's rich, warm tone is delicious and Blake's drums sound crisp and in control. But there's an undeniable feeling of claustrophobia as Schneiderman stuffs dozens of musical ideas into his soloing, leaving the other two struggling for room, effectively elbowed aside by the leader. The number ends with some traded phrases between Scheiderman and Blake, and like the rest of Back in Town , it sounds bright and loud , but there is little sense of real musical exchange.
A version of "Nature Boy," done up in a heavy-handed Latin arrangement, suffers from the same lack of real rapport. And after an epic "I Concentrate on You" that fills eight minutes with an almost Coltrane-like intensity (actually the arrangement does have a touch of McCoy Tyner), the relative modesty of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "A Felicidade" comes as a welcome and refreshing change: Schneiderman's playing is bluesier, less ornamented, and its closing, freetime coda of Schneiderman playing unaccompanied is just lovely. Likewise, the lengthy opening of "Chega de Saudade," the other Jobim tune covered, again just Schneiderman a capella, is heartfelt and beautiful, strongly suggesting that the pianist is best hearduntil he gets some of the prodigal excitement out of his systemon his own, without a band.
The album is not without its pleasures; the group's version of the seldom-played Sonny Rollins number "Paul's Pal" has plenty of excitement and the mathematical Möbius strip of Coltrane's "Giant Steps" can withstand the sort of musical firepower Schneiderman brings to the session. Kozlov's rare solo on "Never Let Me Go" is a textured gem and would make any listener think of Scott LaFaro even if it weren't a Bill Evans tune (albeit one LaFaro never played); of course, when one hears a bassist playing a LaFaro-styled solo, one immediately begins listening in vain to the pianist for some Bill Evans comping, but Schneiderman's not in a listening mode this time.
Schneiderman's musical ability is above reproach, as are Kozlov's and Blake's. Jazz is about more than just chops and ideas, though; it's very much about listening and responding, and anyone seeking those virtues will be frustrated by Back in Town.
Track Listing: 1. Darn that Dream 2. Nature Boy 3. I Concentrate on You 4. A Felicidade 5. Never Let Me Go 6. Chega de Saudade 7. Paul's Pal 8. Giant Steps 9. Sonnymoon for Two
Personnel: Rob Schneiderman, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums