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As enjoyable as it is to encounter a new recording by a long-established artist, even greater pleasure can be found in the discovery of an outstanding lesser-known talent. Such is the case with Blue Sand, the new release by Italian-born, Paris-based pianist Achille Gajo and his trio. Gajo's compatriots include bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, who played together previously as Steve Lacy's longtime rhythm section. Gajo's playing and composing are consistently wonderful, and the empathetic interplay with Avenel and Betsch approaches that of classic trios past. Blue Sand is certainly one of the finest trio albums of the year.
Gajo is a deeply bluesy player with a clarity of line reminiscent of Bill Evans or early Chick Corea. His compositions are nicely varied and all memorable. "The Window" opens the album with a recurring piano/bass figure that blossoms outward into extended melodic explorations. An elegant bass feature for Avenel and Betsch's rolling solo over the vamp are highlights of this long track. "Test" is altogether spikier, showing the only traces of Lacy on the album, mixed here with a little chunky mid-'60s Brubeck for good measure.
The title track, a lovely ballad with gospel-blues touches, again showcases Avenel, who switches to the kora, an African harp-like string instrument, for "Korail." The interplay with Gajo's piano on this exotic tune fills the air with gorgeous curlicues of melody, while Betsch fills in the bottom end with a little extra bass drum work. Versions of Abdullah Ibrahim's "Mountain of the Night" and Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" are stellar, but the trio saves the best for last. "Shark Waltz" (a play on Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance") is alternately propulsive and wistful, with a funky main line that would be irresistible even if not driven home by such fantastic playing.
Everything about this album is first-class, and one can only hope that the indie label Piadrum can get it distributed widely enough to reach the audience it deserves. Gajo is a major new talent, and if he can keep this excellent trio together, we can expect masterpieces from him in the future.
The Window; Mountain of the Night; Test; Blue Sand; Korail; Ida Lupino; Rwanda; I Am Leaving; Bach to Steve; Shark Waltz
Achille Gajo, piano; Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass, kora; John Betsch, drums