Just when you thought that the vocabulary and sound of a piano trio were spent, along comes an inventive group of musicians offering a fresh approach to some rather intriguing old tunes and some out-of-the-ordinary new ones on Coral. Nikolaj Hess (piano), Jens Skou Olsen (bass) and Greg Hutchinson (drums) - two Danes and an American - have taken a somewhat academic approach to jazz but the music never fails to swing and the musicians always seem to be listening to one another. To complement their individual sound with some different colors, they have invited the ubiquitous saxophonist Chris Cheek to join them on six numbers. Cheek comes to music as a sonic experience, without trying to impress anyone with chops and he adds things that you might never have thought of.
The trio jumps in with "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody - and when's the last time we've heard that old chestnut? Hess bouncily starts the melody and is soon joined by his rhythm compadres to take this warhorse for a new ride. Though these are all technically accomplished players, they understand space and how to work together. Each takes a powerful solo and dig deeply into the harmonic and melodic wonders of the original melody.
The next two tunes are originals by the bassist and pianist and approach the ECM sound and the Bill Evans style respectively, yet keep fresh throughout. On the third tune, Hess' "Dreams , Cheek softly and unobtrusively states the melody and fits beautifully into the group aesthetic. Nothing here sounds stale, not even "Caravan , which is truly exotic in this arrangement. And listen to an atmospheric Cheek playing with sounds and then working his way into the Pink Floyd tune "Us and Them (from Dark Side of the Moon).
Cheek offers another side altogether - but with no less sensitivity or understanding of the music - as the featured soloist with the Portuguese Orquestra de Matosinhos. The music is by the celebrated composers Carlos Azevedo and Pedro Guedes and they've created what they describe as "simple concertinos for saxophone and orchestra. Cheek understands the dynamics of playing for a big band and he's deeply in touch with the harmonic and melodic elements of this music. Again, he's not about blowing a listener away or over and so he provides textures and colors that work for the music and are dazzling in their own way. This orchestra has been a unit since 1999, but Cheek sounds as if what he's doing for and with them is new. The effervescent sounds in "Yuppie , for example, sound like Stan Kenton without the over-weight and in each phrase, it seems, the sections display their very extraordinary wares. And just when they reach an orchestral climax, Cheek enters like a blend of Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz and more of the players who work with the elements of music in an organic way. Despite the fact the music is very deftly composed, each tune feels like a freshly improvised performance.
There is a beautiful mix here to the way the orchestral sections play off of each other and off of Cheek. On the beautiful ballad, "Why Not the saxophonist seems to emerge from the light yet dense textures that Azevedo has created as cushion and springboard. Cheek manages to sound weighty and airy at the same time, just as the tune does. Much of this music has the kind of Latin/Brazilian blend indicative of, say, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and this gives the tunes a broader context. It's to Cheek's great credit that he sounds like a regular member of this band and understands the tunes as if he were born to them.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Rock A Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody; Planets; Dreams; Sweet and Lovely; Karamazov; Silent Song; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most; Coral; Ambiguous; Answer Me; Speak Soft; Us and Them; February; Caravan
Personnel: Nikolaj Hess: piano; Jens Skou Olsen: double bass; Gregory Hutchinson: drums; Chris Cheek: saxophones.
Invites Chris Cheek
Tracks: Does It Matter; FJP #2; Do Pe Para A Mao; Sargaco; Why Not; Yuppie; Pipiwipi; Jamiro.
Personnel: Carlos Azevedo, Pedro Guedes: keyboards, composition, musical direction; Chris Cheek: saxophones; Nico Schepers, Rogerio Ribeiro, Susana Silva, Jose Silva: trumpets and flugelhorns; Michael Joussein, Rui Pedro Alves, Daniel Dias, Goncalo Dias, trombones; Frank Vaganee, Jose Luis Rego, Joao Guimaraes, Mario Santos, Ze Pedro Coelho, Rui Teixeira, saxophones; Demian Cabaud: double bass; Jorge Rossi: drums.