Sam Yahel has made the grade. His signature Hammond B3 soundappearing on both his own work and on recordings by Joshua Redman
, Bill Frisell
, and Norah Jones
has identified him as one of the players that will take Jimmy Smith
's favorite instrument deep into the 21st century. So what does Yahel do on Hometown
, his fifth disc as a leader? He puts the organ in the closet and does a piano-trio record, which believe it or not, is a good move.
Yahel is not unfamiliar with the piano; in fact, it was his original instrument. He considers himself to be "a much more natural organ player than a natural pianist," and admits he really has to work hard to reach the level of quality he expects from himself. Given that Hometown has echoes of piano aces like Horace Silver and Jacky Terrasson, Yahel must have worked really, really hard here.
Hometown opens with a 21st-century standardJohn Lennon's "Jealous Guy." Ben Allison covered this on Little Things Run the World (Palmetto, 2008), though Allison went a lot farther in re-interpreting Lennon's protagonist. Yahel starts out in the clear, seemingly ruminating over past liaisons that didn't work well, and then he slides right into a cool, almost balladic take on the tune, as if to say, "Hey, that's just how I rollno need to stress about it!" Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Rueckert build Yahel a backdrop as he expands on his theme with well-placed bursts of notes, before switching to longer, more definite runs as he gets more comfortable.
Yahel doesn't stay in the comfort zone long, jumping head-first into a runaway version of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One." A steady groove starts to take hold, but Yahel's complex opening figure swallows it whole as he attacks his solo with extreme relish. There's more living dangerously on "Blue Pepper" as Yahel moves from 60s-era Blue Note soul-jazz into free exploration that has everybody working in zero gravity. Yahel momentarily loses his minimalist approach on "River Song" in favor of a more dangerous tack, while the melody on Chet Baker's "My Ideal" gets chucked at the outset as he starts improvising immediately and never stops.
Penman qualifies for another MVB (Most Valuable Bassist) award as he gives Yahel's music a second solo voice. Penman's bookend solos on "Oumou" are stark and pulsing as Yahel and Rueckert pen a tone poem behind him, and on "Moonlight in Vermont," he matches Yahel's heretofore-unknown talent for lyricism. Rueckert's out-solo on "Think" is one hellacious exclamation point, and his extended tradeoffs with Yahel on the ebullient title track give him much-deserved spotlight time, after dwelling mostly in shadow.
The fact that Yahel believes piano is not his "best" instrument speaks volumes about the brave choice to make Hometown a piano date. Still, they say hard work eventually pays off, and it sure paid off here.