Following up his 2000 release, Closer , Australian pianist Mark Isaacs turns away from original composition and instead examines the Great American Songbook in a programme of standards featuring bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum. The result is a marked reinvention of pieces including Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and the Bernstein/Sondheim classic, "Somewhere."
A true multidisciplinary artist who is equally at home with classical composition/performance, soundtrack work and jazz, Isaacs's cerebral approach echoes that of Brad Mehldau. He is blessed with the same virtuosity and right/left hand independence, sometimes creating rich counterpoint between the two hands, as on his solo on "Gone With The Wind." But as intellectual as he can sometimes be, there is a visceral nature to his playing as well; and when teamed with Anderson and, in particular, Nussbaum, whose incredible intuition opens things up dynamically at just the right time during "Skylark," the sparks fly, albeit with a more subtle sense of beauty.
The highlight of the hour-long set has to be the Isaacs' reading of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," a tune that continues to be covered perhaps more so than truly necessary. But in this trio's hands the tune takes on a completely new complexion. Starting with a lyrical solo by Anderson that alludes to the theme without ever really stating it, the piece starts in 4/4 before Nussbaum enters and imposes the more familiar 6/8 over the four, creating a delicious sense of tension. Playing at a slower pace than usual, Isaacs suggestively introduces the theme with a reharmonized backdrop that lends the tune a more impressionistic, less direct conceit. Isaac's solo builds with diverging lines, the left hand descending well into the lower range of the piano while the right ascends into the upper reaches.
What makes this set stand out from the plethora of piano trios covering the same material is the way that Isaacs re-imagines the tunes. "Somewhere" is dark and brooding, yet poignant without being maudlin. Building slowly into the tune with an open vamp, it is nearly five minutes before the melody appears, unfolding gradually and with elegance. And while the structure of the tune is respected it is not considered sacrosanct; like Jarrett at his best, this trio is capable of expanding beyond the confines of the material, creating new perspectives by letting the song take them where it may.
Isaacs understands the meaning of space, and he isn't afraid to let notes breathe. Anderson is perfectly in tune with Isaacs, finding ways to imply the rhythm while, at the same time, asserting harmonic alternatives to Isaac's musings. Nussbaum supports in a way that makes him sometimes seem almost invisible; his choices are so astute that they manage to blend in seamlessly. Keeping the Standards demonstrates that, in the right hands, the Great American Songbook still has life in it, with songs that are so rich that they are capable of sparking invention, interplay and inspiration.