Newklear Music is the second disc by this trio of pianist John Hicks, bassist George Mraz and drummer Idris Muhammad. The title, a pun on Sonny Rollins' nickname (which he earned in the 50s due to a likeness to famed Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcomb), suggests a dry tribute to the tenor sax great. But, as the subtitle, "The Songs Of Sonny Rollins," hints, this is something altogether different and far more interesting.
First, although the inevitable "Airegin" is included, the trio refreshingly avoids the standard Rollins book. Lesser known material covered here includes "O.T.Y.O.G.," "Times Slimes," "Wynton" (a terrific feature for Mraz), "Here's To The People," "Tell Me You Love Me" (a good choice for the obligatory Calypso), "Silk 'n' Satin" and a Bill Evans take on "Kids Know."
Second, the trio digs deep inside these melodies and works from within to launch a synergy of reflective, reflexive exploration. Since they take on Rollins, "the composer," something unexpected happens. The listener concentrates on the astounding beauty and depth of complexity always present in Rollins' melodies. As Chip Stern's excellent liner notes aptly point out, "Rollins's emphasis as a soloist is primarily melodic and rhythmic. But for Hicks and the Keystone Trio, their focus seems to be in bringing the harmonies of the tune to the fore placing more emphasis on the tunes themselves, than the exposition."
The result is a tremendous piano-trio date that is surprisingly reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi. Driven by Hicks' romantic personality and a genuine affection for this material (listen here for his beautiful ballad, "Love Note For Sonny"), Newklear Music offers the interactions of a first-rate trio exploring excellent material. Mraz is a wonderful and supple voice here and never once gives the impression of a being merely a rhythm instrumentalist. Idris Muhammad is a revelation. After years of funk drumming, he surprised many in the bands of Pharaoh Sanders and Randy Weston. While Rollins' work must tempt him to overstatement, his technique offers percussion that is simple, supportive and, often times, quite melodic. Recommended.