Let's Play Stella
Extended intros and cadenzas, embellished harmonic signposts, hints of melodic foreshadowing, frenetic bursts of rhythmic energy, and pregnant moments of ballad magic drive Good Road to the edge of the proverbial cliff and blissfully over.
Seattle pianist and composer Dave Peck has released five trio recordings in the past seven years on his Let's Play Stella record label: Trio (1998), The Piano (1999) and 3 and 1 (2000) featured Chuck Deardorf and Dean Hodges on bass and drums, respectively; Out of Seattle: Live at Jazz Alley (2002) introduced Jeff Johnson and Joe La Barbera as Peck's most recent collaborators. This trio's 2005 offering sticks to DP's established game plan of interpreting standard jazz cartography in curiously original ways.
While Peck is in the driver's seat, it would be a grave error to portray Johnson and La Barbera as simply dutiful role-players. Far from just a sideman, Johnson contributes half of the melodic and harmonic conversation on these eight tracks. His dexterous bass soloing or accompanying, thunderous or whispering, interrupting or harmonizing, always listeningis in constant communication with its 88-key companion. Like two kids in a Mark Twain story, their candor is refreshing.
If Peck plays Huck Finn to Johnson's Tom Sawyer, then Joe La Barbera is the mighty Mississippi, rolling and swirling, propelling the trio downriver with cymbal and drum. La Barbera's instinct for navigating time's ubiquitous twists and turns proves, especially on the ballads, true as a compass needle.
The discerning listener who enjoys playing name that tune will be hard pressed upon hearing the overture to "Yesterdays or "What Is This Thing Called Love ; each is a miniature composition in itself. Peck's intro to the Jerome Kern piece is given a spacious, haunting, minor-chord feel over a straight eighth-note rhythm. Cole Porter's rhetorical question begins, quite unexpectedly, under the veil of a drum solo slowly lifted to reveal a paired down harmony of dominant one and five chords.
"Low Key Lightly and "The Star Crossed Lovers are obscure Ellington ballads with remarkable backstories. The former can be heard on the soundtrack to Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. Duke Ellington has a bit part in the flick, and after his scene we hear his song. The latter appears in Duke's Shakespeare Suite. It's a bittersweet romance which Peck performs elegantly, true to the Ellington original.
"Green Dolphin Street and "Just in Time transform the trio into high energy swingers: medium-up-tempo vigilantes with a license to kill. Their crazy rhythms light a fire that burns like a slug of whisky, with patches of melody and harmony for chaser. But the real barnburner is "What Is This Thing Called Love ; no wonder Peck's infamous growl makes an appearance on this track. (His raspy alter ego is also audible on "Green Dolphin Street. )
Keeping Gorst The Friendly Growl locked up in the basement of DP's subconscious is preferable, but not always possible, especially when Johnson and La Barbera are pounding on the door, begging him to come out and play. "I guess when I get really into it (the music) I loose control, and then I start forgetting (not to growl), Peck says. "I don't know. It's always there in the recording studio. I try to keep it to a minimum.
"The First Song of Spring is the only original composition here and a curious one. It's without a traditional beginning or end. Its bridge and choruses overlap indistinguishably. There are countless key changes, no tonal center and no resolution to the building harmonic tension. It teases and tantalizes, sounding ultimately like an erudite musical exercise. Which, in fact, it is. Young composers in Peck's 1992 music theory class at Cornish College of the Arts (where DP taught for 18 years before retiring in 2003) wrote the chord progression according to a set of rules for standard harmony that they had discussed during the year. "It was basically a random thing where students chose the chords and the keys and I went home that night and wrote a simple melody, explains the professor. "I think the kids in the class were probably trying to make it as hard as possible.
Saving the best for last, the trio offers a simple yet beautiful rendition of Rogers and Hart's "She Was Too Good To Me. Ballads like this one are why I listen to Dave Peck. Aural visions of melancholy, heartbreak and happiness are portrayed with the same honesty and humility as heard on "Ana Luiza (on 3 and 1) and "I Loves You, Porgy (Out of Seattle).
One wonders, is there someone or something that provides the pianist with inspiration? An image of perfection? Magic elixir? "No, he says. "I just love that song.
Personnel: Dave Peck, piano; Jeff Johnson, bass; Joe La Barbera, drums
Visit Dave Peck on the web.