David Kikoski: The Maze
During David Kikoski’s ten or so years as Roy Haynes’s pianist, his unbridled energy and highly advanced harmonic sense gelled with Haynes’s roaring drums to create combustible, killing music. Recently he has graced excellent recordings by Al Foster, Craig Handy, Bob Berg, Ingrid Jensen, Conrad Herwig, the Mingus Big Band, and others. As a leader he has several discs to his credit, most notably 1995’s self-titled, cryptically packaged Dave Kikoski on the Sony Epicure label. A technical and compositional tour de force, this album is one of the undiscovered gems of the 1990s. If you haven’t heard its incendiary version of "Giant Steps," you don’t know what you’re missing.
Two Criss Cross discs have since followed. Inner Trust, a strong trio session released in 1997, featured drummer Leon Parker and another longtime Roy Haynes sideman, bassist Ed Howard. Now we have The Maze, Kikoski’s first quartet date and also his first all-original date. The lineup is promising, to say the least: Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Scott Colley on bass, Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. Unfortunately, the playing is solid but surprisingly restrained. And Kikoski’s writing this time around is a tad conventional. His intentions, however, are somewhat grandiose: The six tracks that comprise The Maze are thematically linked as a suite with autobiographical overtones, each piece addressing a different aspect of personal and emotional change. The concept seems to have overwhelmed the music to some degree.
"Revival," the opener, is an eleven-bar minor blues taken at a medium post-bop burn. A tune like this could really raise the roof, but here it sounds like a perfunctory rundown. The players aren’t reaching. "Puddles of Memory" is an improvement, beginning with an arpeggiated triplet figure against a 5/4 funk backbeat and going through a series of unexpected twists in the B and C sections. "Strength for Change," on the other hand, is a rather bland ballad.
The program’s second half is stronger. "Disentanglement" is the best cut on the album; the colorful central riff draws upon the sound Kikoski began to develop on his 1995 disc. Still, he’s on auto pilot for much of his solo — but Blake, with Tain’s help, manages to shake things up. "Shame" is a mournful latin number with exceptionally strong solos by Kikoski, Blake, and Colley. "The Maze" closes the record with a swinging major-key modal theme. Kikoski brings out heavy artillery on the formless blowing section and comps wild and abstract yet perfect chords under Blake’s solo.
Overall, The Maze is not nearly as thrilling as Kikoski’s previous outings, all of which mingled his own compositions with brilliant readings of standards. His first wholly original program may have caused him to err on the side of caution. He sounds more reined in than usual, and so do his bandmates.