Piano Three-Fer: Michael Wolff, Steve Blanco & Landon Knoblock


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Michael Wolff

Joe's Strut



Steve Blanco

Piano Warrior

Art of Life


Landon Knoblock

The Heartbeat, The Breath



The keyboard remains, here in the new century, a primary force in composition and appealing jazz leadership. Here are three talented players—one only a little more well-known—that combine sterling artistry with a keen sense of tradition and forward-thinking compositional approaches,

Michael Wolff came to jazz prominence working with Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson and a host of others. He describes Joe's Strut as going "down into the caves of jazz and improvisation" and he clearly draws songwriting and bandleading inspiration from these mentors. Wolff composed five of the seven tunes and he has a strong sense of color, texture and emotional depth. And he is fortunate enough to have veteran Steve Wilson and newcomer Ian Young, both on saxophones, to complement his visions. Filling out the group are Richie Goods or Chip Jackson (bass) and Victor Jones (drums).

It's instructive to start with how Wolff takes on standards. With Goods and Jones, "If I Were A Bell" emerges from a groove intro and is reminiscent of the blues-drenched artistry of such giants as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly or George Shearing. The Frank Loesser tune (from Guys and Dolls) has the feel of a killer night in a great club and the bass and drum solos are crowd-pleasing yet full of new color. It's a performance that grows as it goes along without ever losing the delight of the original tune. The other standard is the Harold Arlen gem "Come Rain or Come Shine". The song floats free but hangs on to a pulse to propel it. It's delicate, impressionistic playing—deconstructed and ever-breathing.

The originals have the colors of some of the classic bands in which Wolff has played. The opener "Harbour Island" feels like a rich, soulful Blue Note track with both saxophonists stating the simple, bluesy melody. It's straight-ahead with a quirky little tag at the end of the first melody section. Wolff achieves funky virtuosity in a dazzling solo and is followed by Wilson, with a rich, full tone and some beautifully realized gutsy ideas. Young is darker and less brash but is powerful and direct throughout. The title track was written in memory of the late Joe Zawinul, a friend of Wolff's since 1975. It's a boogaloo all the way with some New Orleans movement and suggests a picture of Zawinul the soulful and happy man rather than specifically Zawinul the musician. It's funky as hell in any case.

Steve Blanco is another adventurer. He writes smart new tunes but also tries his hand at a couple of numbers from the rock 'n' roll repertoire. The music on Piano Warrior is a complex blend of traditional jazz piano trio, with its sense of mystery and familiar colors, and a whirling taste of chaotic yet controlled exploration. We're never quite prepared for what's coming next as is boldly evinced by a freeform take on Pink Floyd's "Us and Them". The tune seems to emerge from out of some primal eddy as a hymn to the unknown. Blanco is ably assisted by bassist Adam Roberts and drummer Sunny Jain and the three are like gentle Zen warriors who achieve their aims through more subtle means. Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" is dark and funky but the way it's approached—with the pianist's ominous low notes and the rhythm section's insistent pulse—makes the tune seem like some minimalist workout.

"Final Voyage" is a gorgeous, rich ethereal ballad that moves very, very slowly and makes its points in simple statements, helped by Roberts' lush dark bass notes and the quiet punctuation of Jain. The melodies here don't smash a listener in the face but rather work deliberately and subtly, taking several listens before getting a sense of where things are going. "A.V.S." comes in single notes and phrases that mask their beginnings and endings. It develops as a full-formed piece but without ever being obvious. The title tune is found coming towards us after an opening 'festival' of African-style drumming. It moves like the warrior of its title—ferociously and in an ever-changing terrain. And "Laughing Planet" seems to suggest the birth of a sense of wonder and joy in creating a tune, a metaphor for the way all of the music here is created.

Evolving composition is also at the fore in The Heartbeat, The Breath by Landon Knoblock. Right from the start, in the pianist's "Jaunted Memory," Knoblock uses some single notes to find patterns that create a new tune. The composer's touch, both at the keyboard and in his sense of structure, is graceful and easy but it takes real work to achieve this kind of mastery. This is yet another example of the continuing marvels of the piano trio at its finest. All the themes here are delightfully elusive; just when they make themselves known, Knoblock and his cohorts Joe Rehmer (bass) and Austin McMahon (drums) deftly move elsewhere. The groove of "Why the Frown" seems ever-present but the trio plays myriad inventive lines that merely imply it. And the improvisations are done economically, with never a wasted note or phrase.

Speaking of pulse, this trio has also mastered the tempos where there seems to be no pulse at all. "New Beauty" is truly gorgeous, insinuating itself into the consciousness at an almost imperceptible pace. We find it clearly and surely, however, and it's a stunning thing. Oddly, after the quiet glory there, Knoblock prepares his piano for "Sylvie A Montreal". McMahon plays melodica for the sinuous melody that works itself out over the 'noise' and it's somehow very sexy and very funny. These tunes all become little tone poems that sound like places we've been before but damn if it's not like we're there for the first time!

Tracks and Personnel

Joe's Strut

Tracks: Harbour Island; Joe's Strut; Wheel of Life; If I Were A Bell; The Third You; Freedom; Come Rain or Come Shine; 74 Miles Away

Personnel: Michael Wolff: piano; Victor Jones: drums; Chip Jackson: acoustic bass; Rich Goods: electric bass; Steve Wilson: alto and soprano saxophones; Ian Young: tenor saxophone.

Piano Warrior

Tracks: Sadness & the Madness; Us and Them; A.V.S.; Piano Warrior; Laughing Planet; Brother Song 2; Underground; 5 3 5; Black Dog; Final Voyage.

Personnel: Steve Blanco: piano; Sunny Jain: drums; Adam Roberts: acoustic bass.

The Heartbeat, The Breath

Tracks: Jaunted Memory; Why the Frown?; New Beauty; Sylvie A Montreal; Blue Summer; Silent Movie; Shortcomings; The Heartbeat; The Breath; Happy Go Lucky; Optimist.

Personnel: Landon Knoblock: piano; Joe Rehmer: bass; Austin McMahon: drums and melodica.

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