There's a lot going on with pianist Darrell Grant's fourth album as a leader. First it's a live performance in Rochester, NY. It was the Eastman School of Music in that city that awarded Grant a music scholarship at the age of 17, making him a prodigy of sorts. Second, the album is a tribute to his adopted town, Portland, OR. He joins many other jazz artists who have made Northwest U.S. their home. Third, it's Grant's debut as a short story writer. The liner notes have his story about a day in the life of a jazzman named Langston and how and why he made the move from New York City to the Northwest. As Grant did the same thing, no doubt there is some biographical truth to this well written, interesting tale. Some of the music on the play list is tied to the story. For instance, the great bassist Leroy Vinnegar is mentioned in the narrative and the first cut on the album, Bill Lee's (movie man Spike Lee's father) "Little Jimmy Fiddler" honors that bassist
The album's first four tracks are up-tempo pieces of various speeds. Even the usually sedately played "If I Should Lose You" is given a throbbing post bop treatment as vibraphonist Joe Locke's solo expands on Milt Jackson's 1981 rendition moving it further into the realm of modern improvisational jazz. It's not until track five, Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye," that everyone relaxes, and this is carried over into "Quiet Times." The serenity of Carmen Lundy's composition is respected by the introspective approach. Taken by the group. The great bop groups of the past are honored with the out of the 1960's title piece, Grant's "Smokin' Java," making this cut a fitting coda.
Grant's playing falls somewhere in between Sonny Clark and the pre fusion incarnation of Herbie Hancock, a wide spectrum indeed. But this album shows that he is unarguably a unique piano artist. The support he gets is impeccable. Joe Locke, a sought after vibes player, and altoist Donald Harrison, a former wunderkind himself, are the major protagonists of the musical drama with Grant. But the playing of bassist Stata and drummer Blade make them indispensable parts of the whole. A good story and good music, always a winning combination, makes Smokin' Java recommended.
Personnel: Darrell Grant: piano; Joe Locke: vibraphone; Donald Harrison: alto saxophone; Bob Stata: acoustic bass; Brian Blade: drums.