Remember the name William Menefield. On second thought, don’t bother; you’ll probably be hearing it often enough in the years ahead. Menefield’s debut album, Big Will Leaps In, has “blossoming superstar” written all over it. As a pianist Menefield unearths a range of maturity, depth and insight that would be remarkable at any age, and is especially eye–opening when embodied in a 19–year–old wunderkind who’s only a year removed from high school. One can’t help but wonder how he was able to absorb so much music in so few years. It probably helped that his mom, Cindi, is a singer, and his dad, Bruce, a tenor saxophonist. Young William started playing violin as five–year–old, switched to cello the following year and took up piano at age eight (more seriously two years later when his mother sold the family TV set, labeling it too much of a distraction). While he still studies cello with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Norman Johns, the piano may be young William’s most suitable avenue to success. He’s certainly off to a flying start. Comparisons would be unfair at this early stage in Menefield’s career, but he has obviously listened closely to such masters as Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Kenny Barron and their predecessors, not to mention such (relatively) younger players as Cyrus Chestnut, Mulgrew Miller, Jessica Williams, Marcus Roberts and others (including Donald Brown, who wrote the liner notes). Don’t be misled by the cover art and album title — this isn’t stride or boogie woogie from the Swing Era but contemporary post–bop piano wonderfully played (and, in four cases, written) by a phenomenal young keyboard artist. Menefield quickly establishes his credentials as composer by opening with a pair of his thoroughly engaging pieces, “Owenthology” and “Big Will Leaps In” (the latter based on the bop classic “Little Willie Leaps”). Menefield also wrote “Mismatch” and the ballad “For Patriece.” He performs in a trio setting on five selections, is joined by tenor saxophonist Engel on John Coltrane’s “Equinox” and by Engel and trumpeter Wade on “Big Will,” “For Patriece” and “A Night in Tunisia.” The remaining tune, “Misty,” is played (with some untypical chording) by Menefield alone. Engel and Wade are staunch modernists with pleasing intonations and large chops; as for bassist Wheeler and drummer Gore, they sound as though they’ve been playing alongside Menefield for more years than he’s been alive. This is one tight–knit group, given its marching orders by a young commander–in–chief who’s always firmly in control. Listen and be awestruck by the sharp interplay on “Mismatch,” the well–heated “Morning Sunrise,” the loping “Bye Bye Blackbird” or Monk’s bluesy “Straight No Chaser.” Every so often a gifted young pianist comes along — a Sergio Salvatore or Anthony Wonsey — who causes one to do a double–take and ask himself, “Did I really hear what I thought I heard?” The answer in this case is that, surprising as it may seem, you positively heard right. Young Mr. Menefield is the real deal. One more album like this one and he may think about pawning that cello.
Track listing: Owenthology; Big Will Leaps In; Equinox; Mismatch; For Patriece; Softly As in a Morning Sunrise; Bye Bye Blackbird; Misty; Straight No Chaser; A Night in Tunisia (59:49).
William Menefield, piano; Mike Wade, trumpet (2, 5, 10); Kevin Engel, tenor sax (2, 3, 5, 10); Tyrone Wheeler, bass (except 8); Art Gore, drums (except 8).