George Cables: My Muse (2012)
Pianist George Cables' relationship with the late Helen Wray must have been one joyous romance. Contrary to the expectations of an album dedicated to a departed loved one, My Muse is a collection of uplifting and, frankly, happy-sounding originals and standards. Take away the personal context and you'd swear Cables and company were just enjoying the gig.
Cables is an elegant pianist. He has the rare capability to play with great drama, but without ever becoming hard or abrasive. And of course he can swing with impeccable pace and timing, employing his deft sophistication that makes even simple passages sound structured and perfect. When he's playing hard, as on "You're My Everything," the melody is at the forefront, never giving way to percussive, McCoy Tyner-like thunder. Cables is grace on eighty-eight keys.
But if their deliveries differ, Tyner is clearly on Cables' list of favored composers. "You Taught My Heart to Sing" is a perfect vehicle to showcase Cables' skill with a romantic ballad. His performance is finely wrought, sensitive and densely layered without ever becoming baroque. Cables packs a lot of playing into every song, but never overdoes it.
The real meat of My Muse is Cables' originals. There are four, and they're all first-rate. "Lullaby" is just that: a short, softly stated and beautiful melody to open the record. "Helen's Song" opens with Cables playing a nuanced solo variation on the melody, but it quickly solidifies as bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis join in. The tune unfurls with a mid-tempo bouncequietly, at first, and then, following the first bridge and solo chorus, building into a happy (there's that word again) venture through collaborative musical charm. Then, when it seems as if the band couldn't get any happier, it dives right into the title track, with its vampy syncopated rhythm and Cabels' fat and lush ten-finger bridge chords. It's simply a fun tune. It might have been the long lost Vince Guaraldi masterpiece that never made it into a Charlie Brown special.
The final original, "But He Knows," features a broken waltz brushed out by Lewis under the descending scale of the statement. Cables makes great use of the lower register, often overlaying Essiet's bass lines. The result is a full, opulent sound of fully realized music.
The balance of the date covers a top-notch selection of jazz and popular music's finest composers, including Tyner, George and Ira Gershwin, and Marvin Hamlisch. Don't confuse "happy" with "light." There is a lot of great playing and terrific music on My Muse. Cables, Essiet and Lewis weave all of these sources into a seamless, well thought-out and, yes, happy-sounding album.
Track Listing: Lullaby; You're My Everything; You Taught My Heart To Sing; Helen's Song; My Muse; My One And Only Love; But He Knows; The Way We Were; My Old Flame; Hey, It's Me You're Talkin' To; I Loves You Porgy.
Personnel: George Cables: piano; Essiet Essiet: bass; Victor Lewis: drums.