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440 Keys: A Batch of Piano Delights

Geno Thackara By

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It's always a pleasure to be reminded what a range of sounds just one instrument can produce. The same 88 keys can be used in endlessly different ways in different inventive hands, and this batch of recordings has several masterful performers taking that starting point toward quite eclectic ends.

Dag Arnesen Trio
Pentagon Tapes
Losen Records
2017

With a love for jazz and folk both classic and modern, Dag Arnesen finds a niche that doesn't necessarily sound old or new. His trio on Pentagon Tapes ably coasts alongside him or (more often) carves out a simple yet colorful background to give his pieces the support they need. There's an easy flow and and melodic sensibility here that keeps everything moving along steadily to please the ear. Arnesen's smooth lyricism is impressive, though his feel for balladry is arguably more so—a couple jazz standards are rendered with easygoing charm and a rich "Love Me Tender" makes one of the highlights. Set alongside several light-swinging originals and a couple Norwegian tunes to add a touch of folk, it makes an appealing mix smoothly accessible and full of flavor.

Alexi Tuomarila
Kingdom
Edition Records
2017

It seems odd to use a phrase like "breaking out" for someone who's notched up seven discs as a leader, but Alexi Tuomarila seems hopefully ready to finally reach an audience as wide as his critical acclaim. It's unclear why he's dropped the 'Trio' tag from Seven Hills (Edition, 2013) while keeping the rhythm section intact, but bandmates Mats Eilertsen (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums) are no less vital here. They keep the energy loping at just the right level while ensuring that the pulse of the leader's compositions never loses its appealing bounce.

Kingdom is a collection of beautiful melodies to lodge pleasantly in the mind, which are likely to make as much of an impression as the trio's virtuosity and interplay. Tuomarila's fleetly weaving keys sound effortless, always ready with the right trill or embellishment to make his melody lines that much sweeter. His compositional voice may be the most compelling element here; one Bob Dylan classic gets a sly contemporary chord arrangement, while Tuomarila's range of little licks and hooks give his already-prismatic compositions enough depth to make cover tunes superfluous. For those who love digging into sophisticated musicality or those who want a catchy listen to please the ear, this trio remains a delight.

Julia Hülsmann Trio
Sooner and Later
ECM Records
2017

Like the above, Sooner and Later includes one cover tune, and it likewise feels out of place. It's not that Radiohead's "All I Need" suffers from this treatment—this rendition is beautifully haunting in a way that fits both the original and the context of this record. Rather, Hülsmann's original pieces and the trio's subtle back-and-forth are solid enough that they can easily carry the day (or rather the wee hours of the night) on their own. The German pianist lands somewhere between chamber jazz and the cocktail kind on her fourth outing with ECM. She weaves some hints of snazzy bebop and the like, but the approach is determinedly contemporary and the players' considerable musicality never sounds at all awkward. Her sensitive touch on the keys makes solo lines flow like water and sparse steady chords float with quiet confidence. The surface is always alluring and evocative here, which barely hints at the depth waiting to be explored beneath.

David Arthur Skinner
Skinner Plays Skinner
Losen Records
2017

For his part, David Arthur Skinner approaches the idea of originals vs. covers and takes a step completely sideways. The idea behind standard songs was itself a source of fascination—a tune's composer could have meant any particular thing when giving a piece its shape and title, but once it's out there in the world, there's no limit to the ways other musicians can approach or change it. Skinner's catalogue of past albums (solo piano, in a duo with saxophonist Anders Lønne Grønseth or the quartet Sphinx) have consisted mostly or entirely of jazz standards, all with the goal of adding his own impressionistic spin. The idea behind Skinner Plays Skinner was to treat his own songs like standards, trying to let go of any past associations and tackle them as a stranger might. These are all original tracks that he's apparently played with different ensembles in the past. None have appeared on one of his recordings before, however, so the result is a collection that's new to him and us alike.

Skinner Plays Skinner opens with a dazzling display of two-handed prowess evoking old show tunes and contemporary tonalities, also with a few classical flourishes just to spice things up more. There's a little Keith Jarrett in the spiky chords there, some "Moonlight Sonata"-like romance with the mysterious 11/8 ballad "Grå Trøst," and the rest shows splashes of anything from blues to mid-20th-century stride and bebop. Skinner's feel for rhythmic shifting chords and an irrepressibly restless right hand give vibrant life to all his pieces, whatever new permutations they might be going through. If they haven't yet become standards or covers for anyone else, it's not for lack of merit.

Randy Ingram
The Wandering
Sunnyside Records
2017

Randy Ingram sounds like he's happy to wander in a manner most pleasant and carefree, and does so beautifully with the simpatico accompaniment of Drew Gress on double-bass. Their hour-long dialogue is as eloquent as it is understated; without breaking the contemplative mood, they share dreamy interludes and light toe-tappers with equal sophistication. Shades of Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly are easy to point out and then just as easy to forget—Ingram's bright melody lines and expressive touch on the keys don't depend on comparisons to anyone else.

Their take on Evans' "Show-Type Tune" almost invites some tap-dancing with its Broadway bounce, while the walking lines of "Dream Dancing" make a jaunty feel of springtime even as they mutate the form past what Cole Porter first envisioned. In between, the dreaminess is more suited to quiet peaceful times and the players are happy to leave themselves breathing space to spare. The Wandering occasionally has something of an old-timey classic feel, though the kind that still doesn't come out sounding dated or tied to the past. Both have subtly expressive voices on their instruments, and it's a joy simply to hear them converse.

Tracks and Personnel

Pentagon Tapes

Tracks: Morris; Grynte; Bonden i Bryllupsgarden; Summer Morning Mist; Yellow Feather; What Is This Thing Called Love; In Your Own Sweet Way; Svendsen Ordner Alt; Love Me Tender; I Remember This; Lille Måltrost.

Personnel: Dag Arnesen: piano; Ole Marius Sandberg: bass; Ivar Thormodsæter: drums.

Kingdom

Tracks: The Sun Hillock; Rytter; The Girl in a Stetson Hat; Vagabond; The Times They Are A-Changin'; Shadows; Aalto; Bruin Bay; White Waters.

Personnel: Alexi Tuomarila: piano; Mats Eilertsen: bass; Olavi Louhivuori: drums.

Sooner and Later

Tracks: From Afar; Thatpujai; You & You; Biz Joluktuk; All I Need; The Poet (For Ali); Offen; J.J.; Soon; Later; Der Mond.

Personnel: Julia Hülsmann: piano; Marc Muellbauer: double bass; Heinrich Köbberling: drums.

Skinner Plays Skinner

Tracks: Diagonal Rag; David's Blues; Trompe-le-Pied; Grå Trøst; Antipodology; At Home; Half an Arthur; Balloon; Disconnect; Ert.

Personnel: David Arthur Skinner: piano.

The Wandering

Tracks: Away; Guimarães; Large Father; The Peacocks; Dream Dancing; The Wandering; Chief Crazy Horse; Show-Type Tune; Three for D'Reen.

Personnel: Randy Ingram: piano; Drew Gress: bass.

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