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Pianos in the Foreground: Six Modern Masters


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Because of its huge range, the piano might be the most expressive and adaptable instrument in western music. And since jazz is a product of western culture, it's no surprise that jazz pianists have been the genre's foremost creators, interpreters and stylists. This has been true since the days of ragtime, New Orleans, stride and swing, and on to bebop, hard-bop, modal, avant-garde, Latin, world and beyond. The six pianists featured in this review have since the 1980s investigated, adapted and advanced the jazz piano tradition, while developing their own daring and delicious musical identities.

Geri Allen
Flying Toward The Sound
Motema Music

Synthesizing a unique artistic voice out of many jazz styles has been pianist/composer Geri Allen's stock-in-trade since she emerged on the scene during the so-called "young lions" period of the 1980s. The ethnomusicology-trained, Detroit-born stylist proved equally at home with singer Betty Carter, bassist Charlie Haden and MBASE, in addition to her own critically acclaimed discs. After some infrequent releases on a number of labels, Allen emerges on a new label with a stupendous solo recording that will be regarded as one the solo keyboard recordings of the age.

The CD is an eight-part solo piano suite, composed by Allen during her 2008/09 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in tribute to Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Allen channels Taylor's light-speed lines, Tyner's thundering, John Coltrane-coded chords and Hancock's evocative harmonies and melodic genius into her own special sonic stew. She employs a number of scored and improvised sections, imbued by the metaphor of flight, so central to the African-American folk tradition. The title track, "Red Velvet in Winter" and "Dancing Mystic Poets At Midnight" are especially illustrative of Allen's aural alchemy. An accompanying DVD/film by director Carrie Mae Weeks, and the last track, a sumptuous ballad, "Your Pure Self (Mother to Son)," complete this delightful and dynamic tour-de-force that shows the full range of Allen's musical gifts.

Bill Charlap / Renee Rosnes
Double Portrait
Blue Note

As challenging as the solo piano format is, the duo keyboard is as equally intimidating. There have only been a few tandems of note in the history of the music: Meade Lux Lewis/Albert Ammons and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn immediately come to mind. With the release of Double Portrait, Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap, who married in 2007, should be added to that illustrious list. This nine-track recording offers the dynamic duo's take on a number of jazz, popular and Latin standards.

Charlap, the bop-tuned interpreter of the American popular song, and Rosnes, the Canadian who came to the US straight out of the blue with her modernist, post-1960s style, make wonderful music together. Their ease at swinging the Latin tinge is evident on a torrid take on Lyle Mays' "Chorinho," and Wayne Shorter's immortal "Ana Maria;" it's possibly the most evocative duo piano rendering of the last song since Harold Danko and Kirk Lightsey's version on Shorter By Two (Sunnyside, 1982). Renditions of the Gershwin, Schwartz/Dietz and Loessner standards "My Man's Gone Now," "Dancing in the Dark" and the ironically-titled "Never Will I Marry," all swing and sing in articulate and intricate performances. "Inner Urge," by Rosnes' former boss, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, and "Little Glory," by Charlap's former leader, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, are unearthed with new melodic nuggets, as is Antonio Carlos Jobim's lovely waltz "Double Rainbow." "The Saros Cycle" is an evocative, classically-styled selection by Rosnes which features a wide range of dynamics and textures. This couple's love for the music and each other provide the golden thread that leads to art.

Fred Hersch Trio
Palmetto Records

The equally gifted Ohio native Fred Hersch's love for jazz established him in New York as a sideman for saxophonists Stan Getz and Joe Henderson and flugelhornist Art Farmer, and then as solo artist who released a number of exceptional recordings, from Saraband (Sunnyside, 1986) to Stories Without Words (Nonesuch, 2001). But he was known to the non-jazz world as the heroic artist stricken with HIV, who miraculously emerged from a coma that threatened to silence his near supernatural skills. As his new, deep, dancing and durable disc shows, Hersch—backed by excellent support by drummer Eric McPherson and bassist Jon Herbert—delivers an inventive and evocative 10-track CD that represents the full-flowering of his pianistic and interpretive genius.

Hersch's touch is reminiscent of Bill Evans' and his pulse is similar to Ahmad Jamal's, and those attributes pulsate the Latinized opening track by Harry Warren, and the habanera motored "Mandevilla." Hersch's moving slow numbers show why he's one of the greatest balladeers of his generation; and his take on his mentor Jaki Byard's "Mrs. Parker of K.C." proves that he can play the blues with the best of them. The spirited title track, dedicated to ballerina Suzanne Ferrell, showcases Hersch's composition chops, which focus more on telling stories than technique for technique's sake.

Marc Cary Focus Trio
Live 2009
Motema Music

Technique is something the D.C. pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary has plenty of. His sideman cred is exceptional, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and singers Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, and together with his own CDs as leader, including Trillium (Jazzateria, 1999), and his world music/gogo group, Indigenous People, provides him with carte blanche to flip the script on any tune, any time, any where. Which is exactly what he does on this exquisite live CD, recorded with his all-world trio consisting of Indian-American drummer Sameer Gupta and David Ewell, recorded in 2009 in D.C., Italy, Colorado and Switzerland.

Listen to the way Cary's rhythmic, in-the-pocket keys groove on a new neo-drum 'n' bass look at Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," along with his martial take on Jackie McLean's post-bop classic "Minor March." Abbey Lincoln's ballad "My Love Is You" is recast with shimmering cymbal crashes, contrasted by the sexy, subcontinental swing of "KC Bismillah Khan" and Cary's Coltrane-ish "Slow Blues For MLK," which features snippets of Martin Luther King's speeches. What sustains this recording—and all of Cary's recordings for that matter—is his deep commitment to that unmistakable, African-American gravity called swing.

Jacky Terrasson
Concord Jazz

The Berlin-born, Paris-raised pianist Jacky Terrasson shares Cary's devotion to swing, albeit with different results. This winner of the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition has been known to take his modernist, fleet-fingered pianism through Da Vinci Code-type rearrangements of jazz, classical and rock tunes, from Ravel to Pink Floyd. He continues that trend on his this CD, his first release in three years, featuring a trio with special guests featuring harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart and percussionist Cyro Baptista.

Terrasson has the rare ability to sound restrained with reckless abandon, which makes for riveting listening, given his talent for reconfiguring the DNA of a number of musical genres. On the down-home opener, "Gaux Girl," and "Say Yeah" he lets you know loud and clear how much he loves Ramsey Lewis, and his McCoy Tynerish melding of "Beat/Body and Soul" is a nigh impossible melding of the Michael Jackson hit with the evergreen jazz ballad, but one that somehow works. Terrasson renders Thelonious Monk's "Ruby My Dear" as a tasteful, radio-friendly ballad with a little bit of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" thrown in near the end, and on "'Round Midnight" he takes some funny liberties on the tune's Latin vamp section. Some make think he misses more than he hits, but Terrasson knows there's no sound of surprise without risk.

Tracks and Personnel

Flying Toward the Sound

Tracks: Flying Toward the Sound; Red Velvet in Winter; Danciing Mystic Poets at Midnight; God's Ancient Sky; Dancing Mystic Poets at Twylight; Faith Carriers of Life; Dancing Mystic Poets at Dawn; Flying Toward the Sound (Reprise); Your Pure Self(Mother to Son).

Personnel: Geri Allen: piano.

Double Portrait

Tracks: Chorinho; Double Rainbow; Ana Maria; The Saros Cycle; My Man's Gone Now; Dancing in the Dark; Inner Urge; Little Glory; Never Will I Marry.

Personnel: Bill Charlap: piano; Renee Rosnes: piano.


Tracks: You're My Everything; Snow is Falling; Blue Midnight; Skipping; Mandevilla; When You're Lover Has Gone; Whirl; Sad Poet; Mrs. Parker of K.C.; Still Here.

Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; Jon Herbert: bass; Eric McPherson: drums.

Focus Trio Live 2009

Tracks: Round Midnight; Attatchment; Twilight; Runnin' Out of Time; Slow Blues for MLK; KC Bismillah Khan; Minor March; My Love is You; Just in Time; In Between Appointments; CD Changer.

Personnel: Marcy Cary: piano; David Ewell: bass; Sameer Gupta: drums.


Tracks: Guax Girl; Beat It/Body and Soul; Ruby My Dear; Beat Bop; 'Round Midnight; Morning; My Church; Say Yeah; You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To; Carry Me Away; O Cafe O Soleil.

Personnel: Jacky Terrasson: piano, keybaords and vocals (8, 11); Ben Williams: acoustic/electric bass(10); Jamire Williams: drums; Gregoire Maret: harmonica (3, 8); Jacques Schwarz-Bart: tenor saxophone (6); Matthew Stevens: guitar (8); Cyro Baptista: percussion (8, 10, 11).

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