Larry Willis: The Big Push & The Powers of Two, Vol. 2

Joel Roberts By

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Pianist Larry Willis has had an important and distinguished 40-year career in jazz, even if his name isn't as well known as it should be. Since making his recording debut on Jackie McLean's landmark 1965 album Right Now!, the New York-born Willis, who turns 66 this month, has played everything from free jazz to fusion to rock (he was a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears in the '70s), while performing as a valued sideman with such jazz titans as Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey and Woody Shaw.

Larry Willis Trio
The Big Push

That versatility is highlighted on two new releases which cover vastly different musical territory, but share an underlying intelligence, passion and sense of purpose. The first, The Big Push, is a highly polished set of straight-ahead jazz featuring Willis in a trio with heavyweight contemporaries: bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, a former classmate of Willis' at New York's High School of Music and Art.

Together, the group weaves its way through a set of standards ("Surrey with the Fringe on Top , "Everything I Have Is Yours ), compositions by modern jazz masters like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and a couple of Willis originals. This is a relaxed session of mostly mid-tempo modal jazz, with Willis displaying a warm, lyrical touch, never playing too much or too fast, while exploring each tune to its depths. Only on the closing number "Poppa Nat , a tribute to former boss Nat Adderley, does Willis break a sweat, with a hard charging bop workout. With Williams and Foster lending sympathetic support, The Big Push is a fine example of expertly played, if unsurprising, mainstream jazz.

Paul Murphy and Larry Willis
The Powers of Two, Vol. 2

Powers of Two, Vol. 2 is something else entirely, a set of free improvisations with Paul Murphy, a whirling dervish of a drummer noted for his long tenure with avant-garde saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. It's an odd pairing on the surface - a mostly post-bop pianist known for his subtlety and precision and a free jazz drummer known for his speed and intensity. Yet somehow it works. The two artists display a strong empathy with each rising to the challenge posed by the other; Willis turning up his volume and energy and Murphy showing (occasionally) a softer side. This is rather accessible improvised music, closer at times to Keith Jarrett than Cecil Taylor, owing mostly to Willis' strong sense of melody. While it's all completely improvised, Willis' solos are so well crafted they often sound like fully realized compositions.

Tracks and Personnel

The Big Push

Tracks: Surrey With the Fringe On Top; Today's Nights; The Day You Said Goodbye; Just Wait and See; Annikas Lullaby; I Have a Dream; Everything I Have Is Yours; The Big Push; Poppa Nat.

Personnel: Larry Willis, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums.

The Powers of Two, Vol. 2

Tracks: Freefall, Murky Water, Condor's Flight, Blitzkreig, Sweet Solitude, Roadmap to Everywhere, Gremlins, Autumn Hue, Jere's Theme.

Personnel: Larry Willis, piano; Paul Murphy, drums.

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