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Larry Fuller Trio at Jazz at Kitano

Dan Bilawsky By

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Larry Fuller Trio
Jazz at Kitano
New York, NY
November 22, 2015

While jazz is a music founded and fed on innovation, it's also an art form steeped in tradition, forwarded through the passing of the torch to the next generation(s) in order to keep the life force of the music in good and capable hands. That fact was never as obvious as it was during Larry Fuller's appearance at Jazz at Kitano on a crisp autumn evening. The fifty-year-old pianist—the last person to man the eighty-eights in bassist Ray Brown's trio—showed that he's upholding his former employer's vision, swinging with gusto and seducing with heartfelt balladry. He also made clear that he's following Brown's lead via his adoption of bandstand mentorship tactics, sharing his hard-earned knowledge with two rising star rhythm players—bassist-vocalist Katie Thiroux and drummer Matt Witek.

The first set of this well-acquainted threesome's single-night stand at Jazz at Kitano found the group in fine form, delivering in-the-pocket swing—tightly choreographed in places, open for blowing in others—and lyrical beauties rich with harmonic substance. The playlist leaned heavily on Fuller's latest album—an eponymously-titled 2014 trio date with bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Gregory Hutchinson—but even familiar pieces from that recording were embellished and expanded upon. "Django"—a classic John Lewis composition from The Modern Jazz Quartet's playbook—was one such number. The shape remained intact and in-line with what can be heard on the album, but Fuller and company took the core of the piece further into the heart of the groove in this performance. A hint of cool jazz morphed into strutting swing and, for a spell, a shuffle feel. By the time Fuller's piano solo neared its end and he handed the proverbial baton to Thiroux, the slow head-bob was visible on many an audience member in the packed room, indicating near-universal acknowledgement that this was swing as it's meant to be.

Many other selections in the set confirmed that thought—a blazingly fast "Daahoud" that found Fuller quoting "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," a "Parking Lot Blues" that spoke to boisterous boogie-woogie, a set-opening "At Long Last Love" that found Fuller's fingers dancing across the keys in Oscar Peterson-esque fashion—but this trio isn't a one-trick pony or a technique-obsessed outfit. Chops were balanced with sensitivity, and technique never trumped taste. A reflective take on Duke Ellington's "Reflections In D" seguing into a stunningly efflorescent interpretation of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" proved that point, as did a perfomance of J.J. Johnson's "Lament" that highlighted the simpatico connection between Fuller and Thiroux.

Throughout the evening, that young bassist and her partner-in-rhythm both proved to be first-rate talents with bright futures in front of them. Thiroux was a rock, delivering ballasting and propulsive walking bass lines with a round and robust sound, and she offered up several finely-shaped solos with stories of their own to tell. She seemed a tad cautious with her soloing early on in the set, perhaps needing to feel out the room at first, but any sign(s) of tentativeness didn't last. By the time the trio arrived at "Tin Tin Deo"—a staple in Brown's book that popped up mid-set—she was raring to go. After Fuller delivered a commanding solo of his own, Thiroux threatened to one-up him with her own star turn. Witek, for his part, could always be found dialoguing with his band mates and providing the perfect rhythmic backdrops. Like his mentor, the one-and-only Jeff Hamilton, Witek is all class and groove. His time is impeccable, he has his brushwork down, he knows when to open things up and ride the swish knocker, and he's not averse to letting his fingers do the talking when he's working quietly behind Thiroux. Whether trading eights with Fuller on the set opener, delivering an extended solo, or simply laying down some swing, it's clear that he's all about feel and touch, something more drummers could stand to focus on.

While there's nothing radically new or forward-looking in the work of the Larry Fuller Trio, it's a newsworthy group because of the way it upholds a specific, oft-ignored tradition in its own sweet way. The feel-good, swing-centric piano trio still has a future as long as these three keep playing.

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