Jazz's modern mainstream has to preserve tradition while exploring unique approaches. It's got to grow. A lot of folks translate the concept of uniqueness into something "far out" and "hip" and "never before attempted." But stretching the boundaries of jazz to its limits has drawbacks. Some push too far and become alienated. Some water down the jazz with outside sources that prove discomforting. Many of today's innovators simply sell out. If they turn away from the core music that brought us here, then they've failed.
Dan Cray preserves the straight-ahead tradition with his Chicago-based piano trio, yet he finds new ways to interpret it. Like a poet or a painter who searches constantly for new ways to express himself without losing his core focus, the pianist has succeeded in recreating Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver with aplomb. They're the same old songs, but they're interpreted with a fresh, new outlook.
The trio's version of "Just One of Those Things" makes a dramatic impact. Cray moves the familiar theme in suite-like fashion through different scenes that reflect changing moods. Together, the threesome forges ahead with widely different approaches for one theme. The pianist's dynamic strides give the piece new life.
After establishing the tune of a standard piece, Cray likes to jazz it up. Isn't that what it's all about? He takes each piece on a whirlwind ride, alters its texture to the foundation, and reinterprets it with authority. Meters change, moods fly back and forth, and the scene varies. His fresh approach comes loaded with a fiery, percussive piano attack one moment and a suave, comforting layer of harmony the next. Cray's "Good Morning" and "Good Bye" evoke misty moonlit impressions with introspective leanings that evolve into a confident strut along with powerful reflections.
"Trinkle Tinkle" comes loaded with a refreshing new texture as the trio drives it with raw power. "Night Dreamer" appears before us with an exotic façade that remains personal and up close. "Summer in Central Park" finds the trio floating along on its laissez-faire theme with added sparks entering the scene to fire this way and that. Cray builds each of his selections from the ground up, transforming them from the usual to the unique without ever losing sight of tradition. Highly recommended.
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Personnel: Dan Cray: piano; Clark Sommers: bass; Greg Wyser-Pratte: drums.