First Things First is as apt a name for a debut album as anybody could come up with. While this marks pianist Billy White's first leader date, he already has plenty of impressive musical experience under his belt: spending his college years earning a degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA; working with a jazz/hip-hop hybrid group Heezbus, while living in Paris; studying Gnawa trance music in Morocco; and writing some music for films. Eventually, the San Francisco native landed in Brooklyn, NY and began focusing his attention on writing and playing piano. This album is the fruit of that labor and it's rife with exciting compositions and strong group interplay.
While a quintet with a two horn frontline is White's format of choice, he demonstrates strong skills in two other settings on the album. "First Day Of Spring" is trimmed down to a piano trio, with White starting off in a reflective mood. When the rhythm section enters, the music makes great gains in the rhythmic vitality department. The album's only standard, "Autumn In NY" finds White in more intimate environs, supporting and sidling up next to vocalist Yaala Ballin. The pianist is firm enough to provide a safety net for Ballin, but flexible enough to work his way into the cracks of the piece, adding some new things to an old favorite.
The remainder of the album covers a wide swath of stylistic ground. "Adios, Shermano" is a Latin tune in seven that begins with a three-syllable chordal ostinato from White. The band builds around his repeated piano proclamations and the music gets spicier, as White's playing moves into montuno territory. Bassist Yunior Terry is the focal point as "Song For A Friend" gets underway, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire takes some fluttery flights later on. "The End Of The Beginning" starts off like hard bop disguised for a high society outing, but quickly goes in another direction, as the feel undergoes a profound metamorphosis. A little bit of hip-hop shows up in the rhythmic groove at the back end of the head on "Cellular," while "Jelly Bean" is built atop modernistic, shuffling swing from drummer Steve "Anthony" Belvius. "Rue Roy" is a sedate, soothing number that showcases saxophonist Dayna Stephens' breathiest blowing, and features some enjoyable rhythm section dialogue during White's solo.
Those looking for some fast swing will also find music to sink their teeth into in the latter half of the program. With music like this, it's fairly certain that First Things First won't be the last thing the jazz world hears from pianist Billy White.
ABC Blues; Cutouts; First Day Of Spring; Under The Train; Song For A Friend; The End Of The Beginning; Adios, Shermano; Rue Roy; Cellular; Jelly Bean; The Incredible Bob; Autumn In NY.
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