Gary Norian: Houston Lifts Off

C. Michael Bailey By

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Houston, Texas is the oil capital of the United States. It is also, in 2011, becoming a jazz mecca ready to take on New Orleans, Chicago and New York City. Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties are home to an exploding jazz population that includes pianist, vocalist and trombonist Henry Darragh, vocalists Melissa Darragh, Jacqui Sutton, Tianna Hall and Danielle Reich, tenor saxophonist Larry Slezak and, by long extension, Texas-native and trumpeter Carol Morgan. Actually, Morgan hails from Texas but calls NYC home; she deserves to be here in spirit.

Another name that is looking large on the Houston horizon is that of pianist, composer and arranger Gary Norian, who seems to be breaking out all over the Lone Star State. A fixture in Houston jazz for the past 30 years, Norian emerges from a particularly productive period giving rise to these three recordings.

Bryan Anthony / Gary Norian Trio

A Night Like This

Mercator Media


Houston vocalist Bryan Anthony exists in that interface between jazz and popular music, where the two styles mingle in measures that detract from neither. A song stylist, Anthony adheres to the melody, offering a keen glimpse into the composer's intentions that are often lost in the vocal gymnastics of more technical jazz singers. With a source as rich as the American Songbook, Anthony has much material to choose from. On A Night Like This he digs deep into the standards and sets out to make several Gary Norian compositions the same.

Anthony has an ivory smooth voice that lives in the neighborhood of mid-baritone to mid-tenor. His pitch and mid-range are both solid with no softness around the edges. He uses these qualities to sculpt alabaster on a slower-than-usual "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The disc's creative center, this old Gershwin standby is given chamber introduction by Norian and taken at a thoughtfully slow pace. Anthony divines the most from the hopeful lyrics, sung with assured authority, sweetly. Norian provides perfect accompaniment, never intrusive or overbearing. His filigrees and fills are structured to propel, even at slow tempos.

This same approach is applied deftly to "April In Paris," "How Deep Is The Ocean" and "Falling In Love Again." Anthony and Norian are well suited for one another, complementing each other's strengths. Norian buoys Anthony's deep timbre while Anthony allows space through which Norian can shine, forming a seamless union between the two. Norian provides Anthony informed compositions like the title piece and "Your Dreams Are On Their Way" that seem to melt into the standards performed. Rounding out the musicians, bassist Thomas Felton and drummer Joel Fulgham follow their leader's example of less is more when backing a confident singer. The Houston area is setting the standard in jazz in a number of ways and this is just a most recent addition of a very dense talent pool.

Yvonne Washington with Gary Norian

Trust In Me

Mercator Media


Gary Norian already proved his bona fides as a trio leader and accompanist on Bryan Anthony's A Night Like This. Norian provides solo piano support on another Houston native's recording, Yvonne Washington's Trust In Me. A powerful presence alone, Norian shares a certain empathy with Washington, whom he first performed with some 10 years ago. For Washington's part, she sings with the elasticity of Betty Carter and the command of Sarah Vaughan. She is a muscular singer whose presence can be felt on a visceral level. This vocalist recital amply displays the talents of both artists.

Washington's style trajectory is conversational. She approaches "My Funny Valentine" and "Summertime" as dialog, painting way outside of the lines. She misses no opportunity to demonstrate the power and limberness of her voice. "Autumn Leaves" is drawn out by Washington and given a slow ballad treatment. Norian solos abstractly, tying his solo up nicely in the end. The two artists allow one another a great deal of latitude and room in which to breath. This is a fine jazz vocals recital of familiar material that is uniformly pleasing.

Woody Witt

Pots And Kettles

Blue Bamboo Music


Norian and saxophonist Woody Witt knock the edges off the Eddie Harris / Les McCann sound on Witts Blue Bamboo Music release, Pots And Kettles. "Listen Here" sneaks up on you, providing an "a-ha" moment of recognition that is renewed when Harris' other contribution, "Crying Blues," plays. Soulful, but without the grit, this version of "soul-jazz" pushes the "adult contemporary" label hard. Guitarist Chris Cortez joins the pair on the Harris pieces, lending just enough sand to give the songs an edge. At first blush, these covers sound like the disc's spiritual center. But that lies in the eight remaining originals: five by Norian and three by Witt.

Norian's "Slink" recalls pianist Thelonious Monk's circuitous composing: winding turns and lopping rhythms that justapose well with the straight-ahead contemporary balladic title track. Witt's "The Loop" carries a faint "Giant Steps" vibe in its head. Norian solos his level best here, fluid, fluent, forward. Witt exposes a full-throated tone, that while not as assertive as Harris,' still packs a soulful punch. Norian's "Never Very Far" ends this disc on a Jazz Crusaders gospel note. Amen!

Tracks and Personnel

A Night Like This

Tracks: I'm In the Mood For Love; Night Like This; Secret Love; They Can't Take That Away; April In Paris; I'm Confessin'; Stardust; This Is All I Ask; How Deep Is The Ocean; Your Dreams Are On Their Way; Song Is Ended; What'll I Do; So In Love; One I Most Adore; Falling In Love Again; Sleep Warm; Night Like This (reprise).

Personnel: Bryan Anthony: vocals; Gary Norian: piano; Thomas Felton: bass; Joel Fulgham: drums, percussion.

Trust in Me

Tracks: Autumn Leaves; Trust in Me; The Look of Love; Your Dreams Are On Their Way; When You're Smiling; Amazing Grace; A Kiss To Build A Dream On; My Funny Valentine; On the Sunny Side of the Street; The Nearness of You; Pure Imagination; Summertime; What A Difference A Day Makes.

Personnel: Yvonne Washington: vocals; Gary Norian: piano.

Pots and Kettles

Tracks: Pots and Kettles; Listen Here?; Slink; Heart First; The Loop; Crying Blues; Just Because; The Deprivator; Loose change; Never Very Far.

Personnel: Woody Witt: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Gary Norian: piano; Mark Simmons: drums; Anthony Sapp: bass; Chris Cortex: guitar (2, 6, 9).

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