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Sal Mosca: Thing-Ah-Majig

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Often referred to as Lennie Tristano's prime pupil, 78-year-old Sal Mosca has spent the greater part of the last half-century teaching rather than performing or recording, so any new disc by the low-profile pianist is immediately something of an event. Thing-Ah-Majig, recorded in 2004 and especially noteworthy as Mosca's first trio recording since 1959, does not disappoint.

The program is what you'd expect from a Tristano disciple: five warhorse standards (plus one Mosca original, the leisurely "Nowhere ), picked apart and rigorously examined for everything they're worth. (By Mosca, that is; though bassist Don Messina and drummer Bill Chattin perform admirably, this is without apology the pianist's showcase.)

First and foremost, it must be said that Mosca's talents are as prodigious as they are uniquely indescribable; the man is full of surprises. Most astonishing is that Mosca accomplishes his magic without heavy pyrotechnics or flash (most of the tunes rarely rise above a thoughtful mid-tempo)—it's his choices that seem so remarkable. Fractured half-runs give way to scrunchy, crinkled chords, strange spaces open up in the middle of solos which abruptly trail off to nothing, single-note Monk-like playfulness morphs into lushly romantic voicings, repeated notes are hammered with locomotive-like intensity, time bends and shifts, right and left hands suddenly seem oblivious to each other—and all this without ever losing the melody.

That Thing-Ah-Majig is so good seems all the more amazing since Mosca, having just recently recovered from a long illness, underwent heart surgery only a year before the disc was waxed. But there's no sense of frailty on the record, and though Mosca certainly looked his years at a rare, one-night-only Birdland stand in NYC in late June, he seemed as vital as ever at the piano in the night's second set. Backed by tenorist Jimmy Halperin, bassist Joe Soloman, and drummer Skip Scott, he improvised his way through a collection of hoary standards ("Prelude to a Kiss, "She's Funny That Way, "Sweet Georgia Brown ) and, with disarming casualness and great good humor, found startling new colors in every one. Even his comping was idiosyncratic—sometimes lighthearted and lively, sometimes like a small symphony, frequently way off the beat and, like the entire evening itself, endlessly fascinating.

Track Listing: I

Personnel: Sal Mosca: piano; Don Messina: bass; Bill Chattin: drums.

Title: Thing-Ah-Majig | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Zinnia Records (2)

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