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"Meridies," 5th CD by Pianist/Composer Dan Cray, Due March 20 on Origin Records


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Dan Cray
Pianist/composer Dan Cray's first four CDs—trio recordings featuring his Chicago-based threesome of bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte—built their repertoires around enticing cover versions of standards and jazz classics.

Now with Cray's bold new disc, Meridies, due out March 20 on Origin Records, the Chicago-area native has expanded his trio—here with Sommers and drummer Mark Ferber—to a quartet that includes the well-regarded young tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger. And the program now spotlights mostly Cray originals, with only two covers.

The main reason behind the shifts in Cray's musical perspective was his move in 2009 to that hotbed of activity and creativity, New York City. Like so many jazz musicians before him, Cray felt that he needed to be in New York's challenging, fertile milieu to test himself as a musician and discern his potential.

Since arriving in there in 2009 and settling in Brooklyn, Cray has done just that. He's earned a Master's in Music from New York University, where he taught as an adjunct music professor, and he's met many simpatico musicians with whom he regularly performs in clubs or more informal house sessions.

Two of these recent acquaintances—drummer Ferber and saxophonist Preminger—are heard on Meridies. Through the now-NYC-based Sommers, of whom Cray says “he knows what I'm gonna do before I do," the pianist met the in-demand Ferber. “He's so clear with everything he does," says Cray. “I've never heard him make a mistake."

Subsequently, the pianist met Preminger, a fellow Brooklynite. “We hit it off from the start," he says. “I could just tell we were gonna play together. I loved the fact that he loved ballads. Not all young players do."

Meridies is an exciting package, full of modern-minded material given imaginative, accessible treatments. This slant to the program is partly the result of Cray's thirst to find personal expression within the contemporary acoustic jazz framework, and partly due to mentoring by Mike Kocour, the pianist's teacher at Northwestern University (where he received his B.A).

“More than anyone, Mike taught me about communication," says Cray. “He showed me how to break things down to their essential elements and develop lines in a meaningful way."

The program is replete with choice cuts. “Worst Enemy" segues from a wide-open Latin groove for the composer's solo to a natty blues for Preminger; the pop standard “Smile" is done as a perky jaunt in 7/4. Cray's “East 69" is a winsome trio outing in 3/4, while “Winter Rose" is a fresh contemporary tune with percolating rhythm. Joe Henderson's “Serenity" is fast and spirited; Cray's “Amor Fati" and “At Least" are succulent ballads that exhibit the pianist's warmth and Preminger's alluringly breathy sound.

Cray, 35, was born and grew up in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, and started studying piano at age 4. After graduating Northwestern, he cut his teeth with live dates in Chicago, where he played with such top locals as saxophonists Eric Schneider and Greg Fishman and bassist Eddie de Haas. His first four CDs: 2001's Who Cares, No One (2004), Save Us (2005), and Over Here Overheard (2008)—enhanced his visibility.

Meridies (me-ri-dee-ayze), Latin for midday, “refers somewhat to William Butler Yeats's book A Vision," says self-professed Latin geek Cray, “where he talks about the 35th year of life being the 'apex of individuation.' Hence, midday in the daily cycle." Musically speaking, it refers to the mature and vivid work heard on Cray's new recording.

Dan Cray's New York CD release show will take place on Thursday 4/19 at the Kitano (Park Avenue at 38th Street, Manhattan). He'll be performing with tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, bassist John Tate, and drummer Matt Wilson. Cray returns to Chicago for a two-night engagement at Andy's (with Preminger, Clark Sommers, and drummer TBA) 6/15-16.

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