While I’ve always found it difficult (if not impossible) to identify pianists in a blindfold test (okay, I think I could name Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and a few others), I do know enough to separate the sheep from the goats — in other words, I think I can tell who the players are, who swings and who doesn’t. Phil DeGreg is definitely a player, abundant evidence of which can be found on his enormously pleasurable J Seven debut, The Green Gate. In his liner notes, James Williams (another eminent pianist) cites Bill Evans as one of DeGreg’s primary influences, declaring that bond “is never far from Phil’s playing,” and while I wouldn’t argue the point (especially with a musician), I can also perceive in DeGreg’s approach echoes of several of my other special favorites including Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Billy Taylor. So much for comparisons. The music itself is first–class, and the core trio (DeGreg, Gress, Davis), which carries the ball alone on six of the 11 selections, is as securely anchored and synchronous as they come. Ries, a Dave Liebman–Michael Brecker disciple, plays with admirable restraint throughout, showing the warmer and more melodious side of his sometimes free–spirited persona. DeGreg wrote four of the songs (“Green Gate,” “Carol’s Waltz,” “Fast Break,” “Urgency”), fellow Ohioan Ernie Krivda another (“In Pursuit of Hip”), and each of them is commendable. They are balanced by three seductive standards, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Johnny Mandel’s “Close Enough for Love,” and a trio of Jazz–derived works — Bud Powell’s vibrant “Bouncin’ with Bud,” Randy Weston’s energetic “Hi–Fly” and Blossom Dearie’s waltzing homage to one of Great Britain’s foremost Jazz singers, “Sweet Georgie Fame.” DeGreg, a teacher by profession (at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music), earns high marks on this exam, and we harbor the wish that similar essays may loom beyond the horizon.
Track listing: Bouncin’ with Bud; How Deep Is the Ocean; The Green Gate; Smile; Carol’s Waltz; Hi–Fly; In Pursuit of Hip; The Fast Break; Close Enough for Love; Sweet Georgie Fame; Urgency (61:42).
Phil DeGreg, piano; Tim Ries, tenor sax (tracks 2, 11), soprano sax (3, 5, 8); Drew Gress, bass; Steve Davis, drums.