It is not often that a woman is given much elbowroom in contemporary music, no matter how good she may be. However, when she is as good as Min Rager on First Steps, more than elbowroom had better be made for her and her piano. True, Rager has been preceded by a celestial pantheon of female pianists, including towering personalities Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland, the elusive Jane Getz and Geri Allen. To stake her claim and strut her stuff in a gallery with vaunted company requires a singular brilliance; Rager has this in abundance.
Min Rager is an unbridled piano virtuoso with a large heart, creative spirit and wonderful, sinewy style. Rager also has a flair for the dramatic and for making the keys tell stories which captivate and bring rapture to the attentive ear. She has a bright, skipping manner and often lets her right hand ascend scales with alacrity, as if she were leaping through a bowling green. Her left hand strikes chords and notes with erudite tone and color. She will sometimes repeat a note twice, extracting a completely different meaning from its abundant timbral overtones. There are no half measures in her playing, and there is great elasticity in her solos; always a solid beginning, a tantalizing stretch down the middle and a resolute end.
Rager's compositions are mature and have a great feeling for the blues. Paying tribute to human triumph in the tradition of an African-American idiom is no easy task. However, the heartfelt inner sensitivity and the depth of soul enables Rager to sing with the sensibility of musician who has paid her dues too, albeit at a young age. Although this should need no explanation, it does bear mention because the blues is the mother of jazz and not every musician today is steeped in it. To Min Rager it appears to be second nature and this not only a rare gift, but also a credential that speaks volumes for her beckoning genius. The stamp of Rager's creativity is all over First Steps.
Rager's music is anchored in inventive bebop sensibility. "Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose" burns rapidly, as the rumor of a raid. "First Steps" is a refreshingly clever nod toward modal music and John Coltrane "Giant Steps." "Bella," "Persistence of Memory," "Song of Love" and "Portrait of Miles" are gorgeous ballads in the grand, Billy Strayhorn manner. Bassist, Fraser Hollins plays an unforgettably lush melodic solo on "Song of Love" and trumpeter Kevin Dean displays fine chops on "Song of Love" and "Miles." "Embrace" could have been entitled "Abraço," in that warm Brazilian embrace of the tradition of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. "Always Near to You," a duet shared with husband/pianist, Josh Rager, is completely captivating in the grand manner of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea
On the evidence of this record, Min Rager has not simply arrived; it is already time to pay her homage.
Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose; First Steps; Bella; Persistence of Memory; Passing; Song of Love; Portrait of Miles; Embrace; Goodbye Manhattan; Always Near to You.
Min Rager: piano; Kevin Dean: trumpet; Donny Kennedy: alto saxophone; Fraser Hollins: bass (2, 5-7); Alec Walkington: bass (1, 8, 9); Andre White: drums; Walt Weiskopf: tenor saxophone (4); Josh Rager (10).
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