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Anthony Wonsey: Open the Gates

C. Andrew Hovan By

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A native of Chicago, 27-year-old pianist Anthony Wonsey is one of those uniquely blessed musicians who has chops to burn, a big heart, and the ability to all make it sound so smooth and effortless. His two previous recordings, done in Japan and reissued in the States on Evidence, should have sounded a joyful noise regarding a player of significant abilities, but failed to attract much attention. Then he hooked up with trumpet phenom Nicholas Payton and heads began to turn. With the release of Open the Gates, it is now doubtful that Wonsey will remain an unknown entity for very long.

There's a refreshing breath of originality that pervades much of Wonsey's work here and his writing, in particular, is strong and cliché free. As for his piano playing, just look out, because the man has it covered- from stride to avant! Duke Pearson's seldom-heard "Big Bertha" receives a transcendent trio performance that starts in stride fashion and then works its way towards a deep and bluesy groove that locks in tight and holds on for dear life. The other trio cut here, "Invitation", also gets revamped and the results are anything but a retread.

The remainder of the date finds Wonsey fronting a quintet with old boss Nicholas Payton and seasoned tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. The title track goes for broke with a catchy vamp that launches the theme and then recapitulates as a closing backdrop for drummer Nasheet Waits' pyrotechnic displays. Payton's "Into the Blacklight" hints at vintage Miles, circa '65-'66, and two takes of Wonsey's "My Heart is With You" recall the bucolic whimsy of a classic Wayne Shorter melody. Throughout it all, Wonsey leads with an authority and confidence that is rare for a player of his age. It all adds up to an impressive "opening of the gates" for a talent that we'll be surely hearing more from as the years go by. In the meantime, treasure this one for all its worth.


Track Listing: Xavier's Arrival, My Heart Is With You I, Invitation, A Song For Audrey, Open the Gates, Big Bertha, Into the Blacklight, My Heart Is With You II, Blues for Russell and Polly (73:31)

Personnel: Anthony Wonsey- piano, Nicholas Payton- trumpet, Ron Blake- tenor saxophone, Gerald Cannon- bass, Nasheet Waits- drums, John Webber- bass (tracks 3 and 6 only), Willie Jones III- drums (tracks 3 and 6 only)

Title: Open the Gates | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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