At a time when jazz is being pulled in every direction at once in search of a future some fear may not exist, musicians such as George Cables
, Essiet Essiet
and Victor Lewis
are proving that, for those who listen, there is no place quite like the present. Essiet became the trio's bassist for its 2012 Highnote release My Muse
, and has remained since. Cables has been fortunate with drummers throughout his career as a band leader. During the 1970s and 1980s he played with both Billy Higgins
and Carl Burnette
. In the 1990s future Cookers band-mate Billy Hart
would join him for multiple albums, including the excellent Night And Day
(DIW, 1991). Since 2001, Victor Lewis has been his drummer of choice; in fact both Lewis and Essiet have been the pianist's most frequent cohorts when taking the live stage as a trio in the 2010s.
Though he was hardly gone for long, I'm All Smiles
is something of a comeback album. Early in 2018, George Cables lost much of his left leg by way of amputation. It took a year of recovery, physical therapy and crutches to be well enough again to take the stage, both as a member of the Cookers and with this very trio. Cables dedicates I'm All Smiles
to "all those people that sent gifts and messages of support and encouragement during the time [he] was dealing with serious medical issues and unable to play the piano or make gigs." Judging by the album's cover art, which features a dapper Cables leaning on a piano and smiling jauntily, he intends to convey that he is back in good spirits.
Contrasting sharply with his previous effort, The George Cables Songbook
(Highnote, 2016), all of the songs present on I'm All Smiles
are covers of other artists' compositions, save for the newly penned "Celebration," which hurdles forward with an unbound energy befitting its self-explanatory title.
The trio kicks things off with the widely covered "Young At Heart," which became known in the early 1950s as a Frank Sinatra ballad vehicle, before shifting into the title track. It's here that Cables really lets loose his trademark wit and passion. Written by Michael Leonard and Herbert Martin for the 1965 Broadway musical The Yearling
, and subsequently covered by Hampton Hawes
, Bill Evans
and Barbra Streisand, "I'm All Smiles" is the most playful recording this trio has released yet. It's hard to be sure where the song is going until Cables decides to let his left hand draw out the four note lead-in to the chorus. In some ways this is his method of winking at his audience, knowing that at this point in his career they are wary enough to follow along with his amusements.
The trio shifts into the album's second act with "Besame Mucho," a standard Cables hasn't recorded since he was part of Art Pepper
's most consistent and comfortable group on the 1979 Galaxy album of the same name. Rather than the frantic, "by the seat of your pants" delivery of Pepper's version, Cables now sets his own pace, calmer and more sure-handed. While it's easy to wistfully recall the more wild, impassioned interpretations of that era now four decades past, the trio present here offers a more measured approach which works well within the context of this album.
Cables once said "every time I play with somebody different I have to put on a different hat." To his avid listeners, the pianist doubtlessly wears his own cap, and his inimitable playing style now honed over a half-century, is immediately recognizable. That style permeates Thelonious Monk's "Ugly Beauty" and "Monk's Mood." The latter is a solo piano piece which provides a quiet, self-searching end to the album, allowing it to ebb away rather than suddenly break.
One of the finer points of discovery during I'm All Smiles
is the way the pianist cohabits other musician's works. He shrewdly keeps the soul of a composition such as Wayne Shorter
's "Speak No Evil" and Freddie Hubbard
's "Thermo" alive while subtly sprinkling his own ingredients into the pot. The result of his efforts are albums like this, wherein a keen-eared listener will find an exercise of intuitive musical expertise which has endured personal strife and tragedy and climbed ever closer to perfection. I'm All Smiles
is a triumphthe sort of jazz piano album which comes along just once in a while to remind genre fans why they started listening in the first place.