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Larry Willis: The Offering, Excursions & Expose

Francis Lo Kee By

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Larry Willis
The Offering
HighNote
2008


Paul Murphy/Larry Willis
Excursions
Wicked Chops
2008


Paul Murphy/Larry Willis
Expose
Murphy
2008




Pianist Larry Willis leads a full, interesting musical life. From these two projects that span three CDs we hear Willis the rock solid post-bop pianist, a technical virtuoso with exciting melodic/harmonic ideas and Willis the courageous sonic explorer. There are very few artists that work with this broad of a stylistic scope and pull it off so effectively. However, it's not surprising given that Willis has played classical music, jazz-rock with Blood, Sweat and Tears in the '70s and with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

The focus of The Offering is a strong piano trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Drummond. The title track is an up-tempo composition by Santi Debriano, utilizing a bass ostinato to launch virtuosic solos from Willis and Drummond. "TD's Tune," a gently swinging tune dedicated to Willis' friend Tommy Davis, brings in tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander for the first of three tracks. Two tunes on this collection are real standouts: the solo piano version of Ellington's rarely heard "Melancholia" is short (2:24) and beautifully to the point and Willis' original "Ethiopia" features Gomez' singing arco melody and Drummond's use of mallets on the cymbals.

Excursions and Exposé are both duets with the drummer Paul Murphy. The latter's playing is receiving a well-deserved reevaluation mostly because of his mid '80s work with Jimmy Lyons available on 2003's Jimmy Lyons-The Box Set (Ayler). After Lyons' tragic death from lung cancer in 1986, Murphy in the '90s teamed up with musicians like Glenn Spearman, Joel Futterman and William Parker. A nice snapshot of his unique approach can be heard on the title track of Excursions: a four-minute drum solo in which he displays his fast rolls with brushes and sticks on a very high-pitched snare drum, shimmering cymbals and open, booming bass drum. When thinking of drum-piano collaboration, a listener might jump to Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, but this is different. Murphy's drumming is 'free' but driving in 'jazz time' and Willis is a far more tonal player. On "Titanium," from Exposé, Willis and Murphy soar together before they are even a minute into the piece. When Murphy moves away from the cymbals and towards a drum that sounds like a bongo, Willis responds by getting softer and thinning out the texture: fewer notes, pointillism in sound until the piece ends with a single bongo note. Willis' lines here are very focused and the energy with which both musicians play recalls the sound of Murphy with Lyons. But even one of the strongest altos on the planet could only play one note at a time; "Night Shapes" starts out quietly, but begins to increase in energy as Willis finds two-fisted chords to urge Murphy forward. The aural hurricane by this excellent pairing of musicians is intense.


Tracks and Personnel

The Offering

Tracks: The Offering; TD's Tune; Alter Ego; Ethopia; The Rock; Three-Four Movement; Theme from Star Trek; Melancholia.

Personnel: Larry Willis: piano; Eric Alexander: tenor sax; Eddie Gomez: bass; Billy Drummond: Drums.

Excursions

Tracks: A Prayer for all Ages; Night Fall; Eclipse; A Tender Heart; Slippery Slope; My Man's Gone Now; Excursions; Ostinato; Long Road Home; Dance of the Sun Sisters; Sonny's Quantam Leap; Four Stations.

Personnel: Paul Murphy: percussion; Larry Willis: piano.

Expose

Tracks: Titanium; Expose; Liquid Dance; Swing Check; Labyrinth; Introspectus; Night Shapes; West Lens; Deeply Embraced; Soft Pursuit; Exit 25.

Personnel: Paul Murphy: percussion; Larry Willis: piano.


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