While these two Denis DeBlasio CDs are packaged as a set, they actually project two very different concepts joined in continuity by DeBlasio's style and instrumentation and by pianist Jim Ridl's percussive backup and imaginative soloing. The content of the albums is self-explanatory. Reflections of Childhood is, according to the liner notes, DeBlasio's "jazz interpretations of being a father and reliving my childhood." Duets, of course, consists of a series of standards and original compositions performed by DeBlasio and Ridl without the safety net of drums and bass.
The humorous titles of Reflections of Childhood reflect childhood's fun, honesty and inquisitiveness with streams of unaffected emotion indicated by song titles like Sugar Buzz, Imaginary Friends or Tell Me a Story. While DeBlasio enthuasiasts will recognize his stylistic trademarks, they also will hear some exceptional outpourings of inventiveness, the nature of which always includes surprise.
For instance, Doin' the Downhill contrasts DeBlasio's long tones with unexpected accents and pauses. DeBlasio's quirky staccato, Ridl's descending arpeggios repeated for emphasis and bassist Darryl Hall's melodic soloing, just to mention a few examples, set up an expressive tone for the remainder of the CD.
Several choices distinguish this album of original compositions, including DeBlasio's more extensive use of flute (used to haunting effect on Halloween through falloffs of tone, guttural backup, rhythmic suspensions, clipped whines, and airy pitchless whistling and echoing) and soprano sax with its luminous and unaffected tone. His scat on Sugar Buzz starts curiously by singing the rhythmic stresses of a single before blossoming chromatically into vocal exhilaration that establishes a "Whew!" effect. Upon further consideration, however, it appears that the springboard of the single-note scat serves as a reflection of the tune's quarter-note theme (reminiscent in some compositional respects, but not in those of tempo, to Monk's Bright Mississippi ). Further distinguishing the album is the fact that it was recorded live with no overdubs in the home of Larry Wicks.
Perhaps the most notable cut, which puts words to the emotion, is the first rendition of Tell Me A Story. Vocalist Suzanne Cloud interprets the song's words through its three-note phrasing to break the hearts of parents who recall their children's pleas to banish night-time fears by reading stories. With a deceptively simple melody backed by unusual modulations, the song is a gem awaiting discovery by a larger audience.
"The vocal was so difficult!" recalls Cloud. "Get it right the first time kind of stuff. When we did [Tell Me A Story] in one take, I wanted to do it over again, but Denny said, 'Are you kidding?' I thought I sounded a trifle nervous on it, but Denny thought it made me sound more vulnerable and child-like. After the last note died out on the take, I was so flustered that I knocked over the mic stand."
Drummer and producer Jim Miller reinforces the fact that the recording captured the edge everyone felt during the recording. "The sound of the quartet was kind of funky, but it was Denis' experiment. He wanted to see if we could set up in the round of a big room and just play the stuff down live."
While saxophone trios (sax, bass and drums) seem to be all the rage lately, purportedly creating a purity of sound that the piano contaminates, DeBlasio and Ridl go the other direction on Duet by recording as a twosome ten songs without the use of drums and bass. Talk about purity of sound: Both of them have to imply or state rhythm that normally would already be there at the same time that they deliver the melody, harmony and improvisations. As Ruby Braff and others performing with only piano accompaniment state, successfully pulling off this challenge requires outstanding musicianship; DeBlasio and Ridl unsurprisingly fill the bill. In fact, the album essentially shines a spotlight on Ridl, who like an actor in every scene of a movie, is ever-present throughout every cut.
As two of a mind, DeBlasio and Ridl exchange and amplify ideas and reinvent melodies through their twists and turns. Sylvester's Rag in particular reveals their mutual understanding and originality by combining ragtime and stride components such as single-note bass lines and moving tenths in the left hand with stomps and squawks and what seems to be a unison 5/4 riff.
Oleo is especially satisfying with an understated statement of the melody, and Ridl backs up DeBlasio solely with syncopated single notes in the upper register of the piano to signify the lilt of September in the Rain.
As does the state of childhood, this CD set involves the process of discovery and joy, but it's tempered by maturity and proficiency of communication.