Pianist and composer Pierre Hurel has performed and taught in the Boston area since graduating in 1988 from Berklee College, where he’d arrived four years earlier from his native France. Last week, I heard him play with his trio to a full house at the Regattabar in Cambridge. Hurel’s compositions and playing show the influence of European classical music, particularly of the romantic and impressionistic eras. When in an interview last year I asked him about the composers who inspired his work, he cited Shostakovich, Poulenc, and Ravel. In his playing, Hurel projects a natural grace, easygoing on the surface but precise and focused at the core. His bassist John Funkhouser and drummer Mike Connors are also polished and sensitive players, and the trio meshes well.
For the evening’s show, Hurel had selected standards and his own compositions in about equal parts. He opened with an abstract, freely played introduction to the first selection, which emerged as “Lover Man.” The head of the up-tempo second piece started with a simple melody resembling “Three Blind Mice” – and then the bridge, played straight, revealed it as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Hurel’s melodic and harmonic rework of the A part transformed the rueful but determined theme of the original into something more playful, a little Mozartean.
Hurel guided the trio smoothly through tempo and groove changes, and except in the few arrangements with little or no improvisation, granted a lot of solo space to his band mates. Hurel’s original “Happy” had a West Indies groove, and in his snappy solo Connors drummed with hands as well as sticks. An untitled Hurel composition (he described it as “something about time”) also had a Caribbean beat, as well as a melodic hook and impressionistic chord voicings reminiscent of Mingus’s “Nostalgia in Times Square.” In his solos Hurel tends to restraint, sometimes going into melodic explorations in the style of Keith Jarrett but not for too long, letting the end of his solo meld into the lithe improvisation of bassist Funkhouser.
Hurel kept the audience engaged during his announcements, mixing humorous background stories with more serious points about the music. Introducing “Auld Lang Syne,” he pointedly said he finds the unusual selection “touching,” effectively preparing the audience for the hymn-like, unimprovised rendition of the elegiac Robert Burns song that, somewhat paradoxically, is usually linked with New Year’s revelry. Introducing “The Crush,” the title tune of his latest CD, Hurel described the composition’s origin in an episode in the life of a “fictional character.” Happy that said person has lately gotten over the crush, Hurel explained, he now plays the piece in a more “mellow” manner. I found the yearning ballad with traces of Chopin and Satie as enchanting as the performance I recalled from last fall. Then, however, Hurel had inserted a tinkling, off-key treble fill between phrases of its main theme, and this time he dispensed with that disquieting element after the first couple of phrases. The trio also interpreted another variety of yearning with “When You Wish Upon a Star.” For Gershwin appreciators, the straightforward, hushed rendition of “Embraceable You” was a treat (and a contrast to Hurel’s take on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”).
Hurel recounted that he’d long wanted to meet Michel Petrucciani, another French jazz pianist transplanted to the U.S., but was never able to catch up with him. Hurel has channeled his feeling of kinship with the recently deceased Petrucciani into a special blues. The tune wasn’t traditionally bluesy and its harmonies were chromatic, but its anchor to the tonic and the musicians’ intensity conveyed a blues spirit. At the end of their long show, the Pierre Hurel Trio revealed a previously hidden side by playing a modern jazz standard, “Solar,” as the last tune on the program, and as an encore, they played “Take the A Train.”
As well as performing every few months at the Regattabar, Pierre Hurel occasionally plays at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill in New York (Greenwich Village), and his other appearances include European jazz festivals. Over the years Hurel has released several CDs, of which The Crush
and two earlier discs are now available on the Web.
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