Nancy Walker: New Hieroglyphics (2011)
Amidst an overcrowded community, even the cream of the crop has difficulty getting heard beyond their own locales. A regular visitor to relatively nearby Ottawa, Toronto-based Nancy Walker is an Ottawa Jazz Festival regular as part of John Geggie's trio at the late night jam sessionsalso participating on the bassist's recent Across the Sky (Plunge, 2010), an at times lyrical, other times incendiary modern mainstream date featuring better-known saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The pianist has been delivering albums under her own name roughly every three years since 1997, with the exception of the compelling When She Dreams (Justin Time, 2004), released a mere year after 2003's Levitation (Self Produced, 2003).
New Hieroglyphics brings the trio back from Walker's Need Another (Self Produced, 2007), but it's not just guitarist Ted Quinlan, fleshing this date out to a quartet, that lights a serious fire. Walker's always possessed greater diversity than her generally centrist music has suggested, occasionally entering more angular territory on Across the Sky and soaring, at times, with the energy of John Coltrane's classic mid-'60s quartet. Here, the pianist demonstrates even broader stylistic interests, bolstered with unfailing aplomb by bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Ethan Ardelli, even as she dives into a burning pool of lava on the opening "Mehndi," where her approach is anything but reminiscent of Coltrane's pianist, McCoy Tyner. Instead, her touch is lighter and her Phrygian lines more sparsely populated, even as she moves towards greater density beneath Quinlan's gritty solo, after peaking her own with a series of ascending chords and a brief, unexpected gospel tint.
Nor is it just Quinlan's thick, gritty tone on tracks like the blues-tinged "Take You There" that gives New Hieroglyphics its edge; for the first time, Walker adds Fender Rhodes to the mix, and its chiming tone encourages her to traverse more ethereal planes on the brooding "Companion Moon," doubling her grand piano for its gently expansive vibe. Meanwhile, Quinlan turns to steely acoustic guitar on a tune where intrinsic structure doesn't confine the quartet's interpretive stance, its consummate taste and astute, spacious interplay a touchstone for the entire set.
Walker sticks with Rhodes on the upbeat "Take You There," her motivic solo driven as much by time as melody, with Overs and Ardelli busily pushing its visceral groove. A powerful mid-tempo pulse drives the harmonically altered "Intentional Blues," while on the sweeter "Late Bloom," Walker goes it alone, lyrically twisting and turning;
The more oblique title track moves effortless along a sketch of a concept, a taste of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet imbuing a relentlessly building piano solo, its flurries of ideas driven by Ardelli's most flamboyant playing of the set, an energized ostinato driving a rare drum solo, as Walker again layers piano and Rhodes and the tune finally draws to a close, recapitulating its recondite opening conceit.
Demonstrating considerable growth since When She Dreams, the eclectic, esoteric and unfailingly accessible New Hieroglyphics finds the ever-intrepid Walker pushing through borders into dynamic new territory, even as she retains all the markers that have drawn people to her in the first place.
Track Listing: Mehndi; Late Bloom; Federico; New Hieroglyphics; The Great Hall; Imprint; Beacons; Companion Moon; Take You There; Intentional Blues; Brave Heart.
Personnel: Nancy Walker: piano, Fender Rhodes; Ted Quinlan: electric and acoustic guitars (1, 3-6, 8-11); Kieran Overs: bass (1, 3-11); Ethan Ardelli: drums (1, 3-11).
Record Label: Self Produced