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Three Views of Jazz Piano: Bernie Worrell, Christian Jacob, Andrew Litton

C. Michael Bailey By

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Here are three well-recorded solo piano recitals by three very different pianists playing three equally different jazz repertoires. In spite of these apparent differences, the three artists approach their material in a similarly spacious way. The results are encouraging.

Bernie Worrell
Elevation: The Upper Air
M.O.D. Technologies
2014

There are a couple of things going on in this release. First, this is the first solo piano recording by Bernie Worrell. Worrell was a founding member of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic, not exactly the musician one would expect to make such a close and introspective recording. Second, this is the flagship release from M.O.D. Technologies, who is attempting to effect "new sound experiences in material culture... [via] a multi directional / sound / information system." M.O.D. Technologies was initiated in 2010 by bassist Bill Laswell (producer of the current recording) and Giacomo Bruzzo, cofounder of Rare Noise Records (something else one would not expect).

The results of these unlikely alliances is a sonically-expansive, introspectively performed collection of modern music classics in the most unforgiving of formats: the solo recital. Worrell's airy interpretations are spacious enough in which to walk around. Stunning are quietly presented interpretations of Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way," John Coltrane's "Alabama" and Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Worrell reveal more of the skeletal composition of these pieces than if the composers were to expound on them. Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be With You" is played tenderly, completely recast. Worrell even pulls out The Dramatics "I Wanna Go Outside in the Rain," slowing it down and embellishing the piece with plenty of space. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is given a slight gospel treatment, one summoning the sound of an ancient B3 while distilling the beauty of the song to its almost unendurable essence.

Christian Jacob
Beautiful Jazz: A Private Concert
WilderJazz
2014

Pianist Christian Jacob has spent the better part of the last fifteen years as the co-leader, arranger, and pianist for the Tierney Sutton Band. In that capacity, Jacob has loomed large in helping make Sutton a cutting-edge jazz vocalist while allowing her to retain a more traditional acoustic jazz trio format. Beautiful Jazz is Jacob's first solo piano recording. More loquacious than Worrell, Jacob sticks to an older, more traditional set of songs as vehicles for his almost post-modern treatments.

"How Long Has This Been Going On" introduces the disc, making plain Jacob's intelligent and informed method of interpretation. Jacob allows plenty of time for development while revealing the delicate harmonic underpinnings of the Gershwin melody. Jacob waxes classically on Igor Stravinsky's Etude No. 4 in F# Major, making the piece sound quite at home among the American music royalty. "My Romance" is darkly rich while "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" is played as if re-imagined by Charles Ives. An angular "Tea for Two" and cocktail cool "I'm Old Fashioned" give way to a virtuosic "One Note Samba" and atmospheric "Body and Soul." The most modern piece is John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," where Jacob rules with his left hand, straightening out the saxophonist's demanding harmonic structure in the solo section.

Andrew Litton
A Tribute to Oscar Peterson
BIS
2014

Classical pianist Andrew Litton's homage to Oscar Peterson in the guise of performances of Peterson's improvisations is not the first of its kind. In 2004, pianist Steven Mayer released a collection of Art Tatum improvisations on Naxos (Art Tatum—Improvisations). Both releases are interesting listening because of the novelty of classical pianists performing the improvisations by jazz pianists as a matter of rote election. This approach effectively "freezes" a particular performance of a standard making it a singular work of art in itself.

Litton is of a generation of pianist who heard the likes of Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter and Gilels live in concert. He also heard Peterson, whose powerful technique and color and voicing palettes impressed him as a master of interpretation. In this collection are rollicking performances of "Lulu's Back in Town," "Take the 'A' Train" and "Perdido" while Litton channels Peterson's incredible ballad spirit on "'Round Midnight," "A child is Born" and "The Nearness of You." Litton's touch is light and his pedal use judicious. The performance sonics are of a concert hall, spaciously captured, in not a little chilly in personality. No matter. These performances are spot on. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then Peterson should be smiling in heaven.

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