Jazz piano fans may likely be familiar with some real gems who have descended from Ohio. Start with that mighty Toledan Art Tatum, go on 30 years to another Toledan, Stanley Cowell, and then you find there are very some interesting (mostly "non-Toledan") players in between. Take Hank Marr, Phil DeGreg, Bobby Floyd, Dan Wall, and finally, the subject of this review: one Mark Flugge.
Indeed, Flugge may after all be the best-kept secret on the black and whites from Ohio, because he's made a point to lay low, it would seem. Mark Flugge stands at a very musically mature stage, with a number of sideman recording credits to date. He has finally released a record as a leader. His debut, February's Promise is long overdue, but as it turns out, it's well worth the wait. It is an entirely original program of compositions and soloing that represents a landmark in his career.
Unlike some musicians' debut records, very little of February's Promise was not well-conceived and does not represent an assuredly mature form of expression. Onto the music itself then, as there is plenty of notable material.
The opening track, "Time's Horizon," is quite reminiscent of a Chick Corea composition from his Inner Space record. There are a couple of notable wrinkles, though. After the characteristic modal-sounding head, the melody breaks for a solo blues chorus by Flugge. The soloing thereafter is based upon this same transition. The more one listens to this tune, the more one begins to appreciate how seamlessly the soloists moves from a modal sound to a blues sound; there's no sense of disruption. The very competent musicianship on display has something to do with that.
Mark Flugge states with no hesitation that Bill Evans has been a major influence, and the title track, "February's Promise," is a showpiece for Flugge and his trio to demonstrate the finer points they have absorbed from listening to the classic Bill Evans trios. Flugge's writing is a convincing piece of impressionism and as such, provides a perfect vehicle for the relaxed but thoughtful dialogue between the three players. Dave Dewitt, on bass, delivers an opening solo that completely sets the tone; it is warm and engaging, capturing fully the mahogany richness of his sound and adding more than a shade of harmonic nuance to "February's Promise." Flugge's solo is more direct, but he navigates the changes with a real pro's sensibility, and alas, generates the momentum to seal the deal here and take it right on out.
"The Borderland" turns out to be a beautiful dialogue between Kim Pensyl (on flugelhorn) and Flugge. This medium-tempo ballad has a very wistful sounding set of changes and a simple, plaintive melody that lingers in the mind. Pensyl's beautiful tone may have something to do with this too. Nice stuff.
"Drivin' the Bus" is a medium tempo blues in the tradition of Sam Jones' "Unit 7" and Benny Golson's "Killer Joe." It somewhat lacks the gusto and free-wheeling spirit that is evident when this group performs it live, but at least it gives you a sense that these men are more than able blues players. Randy Mather is noted for his soulful and inventive solo here. Mather has a sound that recalls Michael Brecker in ways, especially in his large, round, technically fulfilled sound, but also in his hard-boiled, teasingly approach to blues.
The remainder of the program has its fair share of highlights. "Autumn's Waltz" is another song in the Evans vein, and quite possibly the most well-crafted composition on February's Promise. "Soiree," meanwhile, is an up tune with a slightly Monkish melody. Flugge is known as a superb interpreter of Monk, so it figures we would hear that influence come into play at some point.
Some jazzmen dedicate their songs to lovers. Flugge decided to break the cycle and dedicated one to his cat. "Beatrice the Cat" is a gentle bossa, and by the nice contours and colours that come out in the course of this song, one begs to see what a wonderful sight this cat must be! Kim Pensyl takes his most memorable solo of the record- burnished and marked by an inscrutably patient approach to the changes.
Lastly, "Around the Corner" is another feature for Pensyl and the melody here is reminiscent of the Shearing quintet. Very nicely voiced indeed. A comfortably lazy tempo then allows a leisurely turn at solos that afford Pensyl, Flugge, and Richeson the best sequence of solos of the set. And alas- trading fours! Done briefly and with taste though, not wasting any notes.
Mark Flugge decides to say farewell on this, his bold "Hello I'm here!" to the jazz world, with a solo feature. The title of the track is "Blessings," and it's an intimate, nicely constructed piece that, fittingly, has a "grateful" emotional quality. From striking arpeggiated voicings to delicate filigree over the top, it rewards listening.
The bottom line here though is if you like jazz piano tastefully executed, presented in a diverse program, and with a heartfelt, personalized touch- then February's Promise should definitely push the right buttons. It's a satisfying debut by someone who has a lot of music to give and at last is starting to show this to the larger world through the miracle of recorded sound.
Track Listing: Time's Horizon; February's Promise; The Borderland; Drivin' The Bus; The
Letter; Autumn's Waltz; Soiree; Beatrice, The Cat; Around Every Corner;
Personnel: Mark Flugge- piano. Dough Richeson- Bass (tracks 1, 3-9), Dave
Dewitt-bass (track 2), Dave Weinstock (tracks 1, 2, 4-9), Dane Richeson
(track 3), Kim Pensyl- trumpet, flugelhorn (tracks 1, 3-5, 7-9) Randy
Mather- tenor sax (1, 4, 7).