Piano Trios: Junior Mance, Steve Elmer, Don Friedman & Frank Hewitt

Tom Greenland By

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Junior Mance
Live at Café Loup

Steve Elmer
Fire Down Below

Don Friedman
Straight Ahead
No Coast Jazz

Frank Hewitt
Out of the Clear Black Sky

Old wine in new skins? Four trio releases by seasoned pianists suggest just the reverse: that elderly 'skins' often contain fresh vintages. Consider Junior Mance's Live at Café Loup, which catches the well-traveled veteran in the act of reworking a set of down-home standards—the vocabulary is familiar but his interpretations are immediate and vital. Never far from the blues, Mance's playing evokes those clubs where performers compete with thick layers of smoke and conversation, necessitating an emotionally direct approach that commands attention. A master of musical 'tugs,' Mance hammers out in-the-crack notes, stops suddenly in the middle of fast passages, concludes "What is This Thing Called Love?" with a dramatic ritardando and sustains high tension trills ad infinitum on "Blue Monk" ('rolling' a figure over eight slow bars) and on "For Dancers Only" (where the audience's relief is audible after a similarly prolonged figure). Bassist Hide Tanaka brings a weighty sound and expressive glissandos, supported by drummer Jackie Williams' buoyant bounce. Vocalist José James deconstructs "Georgia" and "Going to Chicago" with a minimalist, stream-of-consciousness delivery seemingly oblivious to the customary phrase structure.

A relative newcomer to recording (Fire Down Below is only his second trio release), Steve Elmer is a late-sexagenarian who's been playing since his early teens. With the help of Hide Tanaka and drummer Shingo Okudaira, the disc showcases the pianist's compositional talent and classically-honed chops in an all-original menu. Elmer has a lot to say, packing the tracks with fully fleshed-out textures (especially when compared with Mance's more allusive use of musical space) and the tunes provide effective templates for the trio's dense, cohesive sound. Tanaka's bass is particularly prominent in the mix; given additional room to stretch out, he takes full advantage of it on "Tanaka's Hideout." Okudaira's contribution is immense, including his relaxed but authoritative swing on the burner "GA's Jambalaya," delicate brushwork on "Lasting Love" and tom-tom ad-libs on "Big Chief Red Cloud."

Straight Ahead, also a sophomore release, reunites pianist Don Friedman with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt—after a 46-year hiatus! Hoping to rekindle their incredible chemistry so eloquently documented on 1961's A Day in the City, the current effort more than rises to the challenge. Although previously associated with avanteers like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, here the trio's prevailing aesthetic—as graphically depicted on the cover photo of a highway's center-strip—is middle-of-the-road, finding freedom within, rather than from, the form. Atmospheric and evocative, the disc showcases Friedman's driving legato lines that stretch out like saltwater taffy, Hunt's mercurial textures and Israels' shimmering tone and just-so note choices. An improvisatory reprise of the title track from the first album brings satisfying closure.

A final taste of new-old wine from the jazz cellar comes with Frank Hewitt's posthumous Out of the Clear Black Sky, featuring Ari Roland on bass and the late Jimmy Lovelace on drums. An under-appreciated legend in his own time, Hewitt was a hard bop journeyman who developed the depth, maturity and fluidity that only comes with sufficient aging. Culled from his regular Sunday night gigs (he logged over 800 gigs at Smalls), the CD contains extended workouts on common standards plus the ironically titled original "This Isn't New." Hewitt's seven-minute-plus improv over the warhorse "Misty" is as fresh as a catch-of-the-day, topped only by a second version included as the final track. Like a kayak over rocks and rapids, his ideas pour out in an unbroken forward flow. Lovelace develops simple rudiments into complex yet succinctly crafted statements, as on "Manteca" and "Lover" and Roland bows brilliant solos throughout.

Tracks and Personnel

Live at Café Loup

Tracks: Broadway; Blue Monk; For Dancers Only; What Is This Thing Called Love?; Georgia; Going To Chicago; Happy Time.

Personnel: Junior Mance: piano; Hidé Tanaka: bass; Jackie Williams: drums; José James: vocals.

Fire Down Below

Tracks: Sister Joan; Silhouette; Constant Lee; GA's Jambalaya; Fire Down Below; Lasting Love; Delicate Balance; Tanaka's Hideout; Big Chief Red Cloud; Aaronology.

Personnel: Steve Elmer: piano; Hide Tanaka: bass; Shingo Okudaira: drums.

Straight Ahead

Tracks: Straight Ahead; Circle Waltz; Flamands; Skipping Tune; Minor Ballade; Straight Street; When It's Time; Pivoting Modes; A Day In The City Revisited.

Personnel: Don Friedman: piano; Chuck Israels: bass; Joe Hunt: drums.

Out of the Clear Black Sky

Tracks: Misty; The Girl from Ipanema; This Isn't New; Manteca; Lover; I Married An Angel; Misty.

Personnel: Frank Hewitt: piano; Ari Roland: bass; Jimmy Lovelace: drums.


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