Larry Willis is one of those musicians whose name should always be remembered when the subject of terrific and, alas, sometimes forgotten pianists comes up. He has been on the scene for over 40 years from his early quartet work with Jackie McLean through time with Hugh Masekela, to a stint with Blood, Sweat and Tears and up through the years as a player in the Fort Apache Band and as a sort of 'house pianist' for Mapleshade Records.
Blue Fable is named after a tune that Willis wrote for the Jackie McLean album Jacknife in 1965. The number reflects a smart hipness that was certainly evident in McLean's work, but also tells a lot about Larry Willis. It's rich with a blues feeling and a sense of tradition, but also stays in the present with smart harmonies and deft rhythmic interplay. Above all, it sounds like a smart jazz group having fun. The horn players alto saxophonist Joe Ford and trombonist Steve Davis are longtime associates of Willis' and play with funk and sass but never as showboaters, listening carefully and beautifully complementing the sterling trio (bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Drummond) on four of the tunes here as well as each contributing a composition.
And a sterling trio it is. They can find the sweetness in a ballad Willis has always made it a point of learning lyrics and Drummond and Gomez must do the same and then a minute later, knock your socks off with something up-tempo. On "Never Let Me Go they manage the transition back and forth in the same number. Always at the center is Willis' strong, individual voice. You can hear that in the opening seconds as the pianist puts his own stamp on Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning .
Willis does a different kind of playing and listening on the beautifully recorded Mapleshade disc Alter Ego, actually led by the Italian pianist Tony Pancella. This set seems to be a hymn to the rhapsodic as two virtuosos play a handful of tunes that lend themselves to lush, melodic interplay: songs from the standard repertoire plus a few from the artists and one by the late pianist James Williams.
The tone of the session is set from the start on the Williams title tune. It flows forward in increasing beauty and if at first it's disconcerting to not know who's playing what, as the tune takes up momentum, it becomes clear that it's about invention and sound and not a cutting contest. Pancella studied with Willis and so their work together here has a sense of joyous teacher/student exchange. Except that it ceases really to matter which is the student and which is the teacher both players assume different roles at different times.
It's when they get to the standards that these men display just how much listening they've done and still do, from Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose to a "Don't Blame Me that suggests Monk as done by players with classical training. Every such connection on this lovely album bears fruit.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Rhythm-A-Ning; Insidious Behavior; Nardis; Blue Fable; Never Let Me Go; Landscape; Who's Kidding Who; Prayer for New Orleans.
Personnel: Larry Willis: piano; Joe Ford: alto saxophone (2,4,6,8); Steve Davis: trombone (2,4,6,8); Eddie Gomez: bass; Billy Drummond: drums.
Tracks: Alter Ego; Annika's Lullabye; To Wisdom, the Prize; Just Wait and See; Don't Blame Me; Single Petal of a Rose; Alone Together; Blue in Green.
Personnel: Tony Pancella and Larry Willis: piano.