Larry Willis, for too long a time unjustly under-recorded as a leader, happily has found a home as Mapleshade Records' music director for the past 12 years. The Maryland-based label has afforded the veteran New Yorker a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate his imposing talents as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer, but Sanctuary is easily the best of these efforts to date. The album of spiritually motivated music captures Willis at the height of his powers in a variety of situations that graciously draw the listener into his brilliantly conceived music.
The opening "The Maji," a cheerful composition for jazz quintet (featuring fellow Fort Apache members Joe Ford and Steve Berrios on saxophones and drums and DC veterans Ray Codrington and Steve Novosel on trumpet and bass) immediately makes clear the leader's considerable capability for creating memorable melodies in even the most conventional of settings. "Sanctuary" is a beautiful piece by Willis for trio and the ten-piece Rick Schmidt strings, adeptly arranged by Ford. The pianist masterfully arranged his own "Good Friday" for soprano sax with piano and strings to portray a mood that is mournful without being maudlin.
On "Brother Ed," Willis creatively crafts a satisfying new melody, featuring Ford's alto and Codrington's trumpet, utilizing the familiar chord changes from Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil." Sanctuary's centerpiece is the stirring orchestration by the leader of the traditional hymn "There Is A Balm Gilead" for piano, strings and the emotive tenor voice of Artie Sherman.
Codrington's "Thank You Lord," a "prayer without words," is another enjoyable outing for quintet, served well by Novosel's relaxed bass line and Berrios' compelling mallet on tom tom rhythm.
Willis displays his skill as a solo pianist on his three-movement arrangement of a gospel song from his youth, "Were You There." "Fallen Hero," the pianist's moving memorial to his late brother, featuring another of Ford's sensitive string arrangements, is a fitting finale to this poignant and affecting date.
Larry Willis/Paul Murphy
The Powers of Two
The Powers of Two is an extraordinary undertaking by Willis (who is joined on the session by longtime Jimmy Lyons drummer Paul Murphy). Comprised of eight spontaneously improvised duets, the date showcases his imposing but unpretentious virtuoso technique, as well as an amazing ability to build marvelously musical structures without the benefit of prepared material.
While the beautiful sound Willis coaxes from his instrument at times recalls McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock, the eight tracks are all uniquely personalworthy of compositional refinement and future exploration. Murphy proves to be a fine foil and at times a convincing creative catalyst, helping to inspire facets of Willis' talent that are all the more impressive considering their lack of prior documentation.
Tracks: 1. The Maji (5:53); 2. Sanctuary (8:30); 3. Good Friday (4:10); 4. Brother Ed (6:11); 5. A Balm in Gilead (6:14); 6. Thank You, Lord (9:22); 7. Were You There? (6:31); 8. Fallen Hero (3:10).
Personnel: Steve Berrios: Drums; Ray Codrington: Trumpet; Joe Ford: Saxophone; Steve Novosel: Bass; Artie Sherman: Vocals. Larry Willis: Piano
The Powers of Two
Tracks: 1. Awakening (7:06); 2. Mood Swing (6:42); 3. Aftershock (5:53); 4. Space Dreams (10:23); 5. Interlock East (7:59); 6. Dance of the Equinox (7:17); 7. Hi-Jack (6:14); 8. And He Never Said a Mumblin' Word (Truth Be Told) (8:42).
Personnel: Larry Willis - piano; Paul Murphy - drums.