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Piano – Emily Bear, Dan Cray, Lisa Hilton, Emmet Cohen, Julien Labro

C. Michael Bailey By

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Like jazz vocal releases, piano-led affairs are legion. The jazz piano combo is a format that is difficult to get either bad or good. Here are five recent releases looking for the latter.

Emily Bear Trio
Into the Blue
Edston Records
2015

The immediate charm of pianist Emily Bear is that she is a mid-teenager...a musically precocious one at that. The 15-year old enfant terrible releases a brief EP, Into the Blue (her seventh recording) into an already crowded jazz trio market. Over five original compositions and one standard ("My Favorite Things") Bear demonstrates a capability well beyond her age, one that promises much. Supported by bassist Peter Salvov and drummer Mark McLean. Bear tears percussively through her short and tightly composed originals "Old Office" and "Je Ne Sais Pas," before showing her willowy ballad chops on "Araignee." "Tiger Lily" returns to up-tempo form, descending figures over a light, almost stride, beat. On "My Favorite Things" the pianist surprises with an emotional depth translated into a mature lyricism.

Dan Cray
Outside In
Origin Record
2015

Chicago-based pianist Dan Cray, with bassist Clark Sommers, has been preforming and recording since the early 2000s. The leader on six recordings, Cray's most recent two: Meridies (Origin Records, 2012) and Over Here, Over Heard (Crawdad Productions, 2008), garnered impressive critical responses. Cray is noted for a quiet, free-wheeling piano and compositional style that allows him to express his innate lyricisms. Outside In is a moody collection original compositions and rare standards where the leader shares things with the like-minded tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Originals "Small Sir" and "Were Springs" are quiet, thoughtful pieces were Cray and Stephens trade inquisitive ideas within the guise of Cray's careful harmonies. Billy Strayhorn's " A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" shimmers a delicate quiet attitude picked up and extrapolated by Stephens' air-dry tone. The most up-tempo piece on the recording is Bud Powell's devilishly brilliant "Oblivion," with is completely liberated by Cray's absence in the solo section. Bassist Sommers and drummer Mark Ferber provide Stephens a rock, but soft, rhythmic bed. Cray sneaks in and give an angular solo brimming his sense of humor and awe.

Lisa Hilton
Day & Night
Red Slippers Productions
2016

Pianist Lisa Hilton has always been apart from the commercial fray while still releasing provocative and exacting recitals. Releasing some 21 recordings since her debut in 1997 (with Seduction (Red Slippers Productions)), Hilton has accumulated much attention, particularly for Get Away (Red Slippers Productions, 2013) and American Impressions (Red Slippers Productions, 2012). On the present, Day & Night Hilton opts for a solo performance, one that is informed and inspired by the pianists love of Cole Porter. Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is the only standard hear and Porter's light samba philosophy directs Hilton's formidable left hand in some dynamic directions. On Day & Night favors a Philip Glass approach, playing solos over fixed simple figures. "Caffeinated Culture" enjoys a hard samba left hand while Hilton's imagination runs the gambit from dead serious to whimsical. "Stepping into Paradise" evokes the American Vision from American Impressions in was similar to Aaron Copland and George Winston. Hilton's recital is perfect Listening music.

Emmet Cohen
Masters Legacy Series Volume 1 featuring Jimmy Cobb
Cellar Live
2016

I really like how this is starting: pianist Emmet Cohen releases a cd entitled Masters Legacy Series Volume 1. That means there is the promise of a Volume 2, 3, and beyond. Cohen's apparent objective is to highlight the jazz masters, beginning with drummer Jimmy Cobb, in a largely piano trio format with Cobb holding down the trap set chair. Cobb has the present distinction of being the last remaining living participant in Miles Davis' iconic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). He was also present for the subsequent Columbia releases Porgy And Bess , 1959), Sketches Of Spain (1960), and Someday My Prince will Come (1961).

Cohen takes great sonic care in presenting Cobb, whose drums are in the dead front of the mix. Lengthy readings of "TinTin Deo" and "Two Base Hit" place Cobb squarely in his history, his time impeccable and quietly explosive. Bassist Yasushi Nakamura melds well in the trio offering grand solos, all well recorded. "When I Fall in Love" casts Cohen and Cobb into a delicate ballad, where the two come to that certain understanding of what music is. Cohen's "Folk Song" is. The delights of the recording are the closing "Hard Times" and "Concerto for Cobb" with Godwin Louis joining on alto saxophone on the former. On the latter, Cohen offers Cobb full reign in a brightly conceived piece that shows off everyone's wares. I cannot wait for Volume 2.

Julian Labro
Infusion
Azica
2016

Okay, Okay! So I threw you a curve ball. So what? There is not a piano within a lightyear of this recording. There are, however, Julien Labro's accordina, accordion and bandoneon, and his arranging talents on Leo Brouwer's Tres Danzas Conertantes; Radames Gnattali's Suite Retratos and the kind, Astor Piazzolla's Escualo. Labro is joined by guitarist Jason Vieaux, whose pointedly precise playing raises the bar of this already high-functioning music. The two cover Pat Metheny's divine "Antonia" imparting a sweet darkness to the piece, giving it an expansive panorama. This is music that has the power to charm, no faint praise here. The closing take on Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is nothing but fun... the way music should be.

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