One of the more perfect configurations for music making, the piano trio is capable of variegated textures. From Nat Cole to Peter Cincotti, the flexible size of the trio has proven to be a valuable working tool for various jazz pianists over the years. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding, which means that it takes a pianist with considerable talents to raise the level beyond the typical cocktail style jazz often found in hotel lobbies. Curiously enough, two independent labels, Reservoir and MaxJazz, have made the piano trio a vital part of their thriving catalogs. So here's a look at some excellent recent releases worthy of attention.
Harkening back to the mid '60s, pianist Denny Zeitlin has been a forward-thinking artists who initially made a big splash with his Columbia albums of the period. Keeping somewhat of a low profile for decades after that, Zeitlin has recorded only sporadically, making the appearance of Slickrock an especially welcomed occasion. Buster Williams and Matt Wilson are on board for a program that includes the four-piece suite that gives the disc its name. Zeitlin is still at the top of his game and if anything his playing has become even more oblique, so a familiar tune like "Body and Soul" takes on a whole new look in the hands of this trio. While not quite capturing the intensity that this trio is capable of creating live, Slickrock still holds a valuable place in Denny's modest catalog.
Live at Yoshi's Volume One
Another pianist who made a huge initial splash, only to retreat later to more modest endeavors, Mulgrew Miller is rarely heard these days rekindling the kind of fire that marked his 80's work with the Tony Williams Quintet. In all fairness, maturity has given his playing a bit more depth and he actually hits a nice balance between hard bop and more sublime inclinations on Live at Yoshi's Volume One. With youngsters Derrick Hodge on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums, Miller covers eight standards and one original on a healthy recital that gets underway with an adventurous take on "If I Were a Bell." Particularly lush and possessing great depth, Miller caresses "Don't You Know I Care" with heartfelt passion and a slew of great ideas.
Live at Yoshi's Volume One
A MaxJazz regular, Jessica Williams weighs in with her own set of material recorded live in Oakland. Live at Yoshi's Volume One finds Williams working with Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis for a no frills set made largely of standards. Williams' own pieces offer excellent contrast, the funky "Tutu's Promise" and the lovely waltz "Poem In G Minor" chock full of inspired solo work. As a special bonus, its great to hear Drummond and Lewis back at it again, the two possessing a marvelous hook-up that is something special.
Sharp Nine 1028
Largely unknown to all but the more astute followers of New York jazz, bop pianist Tardo Hammer has recorded two previous sets for Sharp Nine that while artistically strong have nonetheless done very little to bring a wider audience to Hammer's music. Tardo's Tempo finds Hammer once again ensconced in the glory of be-bop days gone by. His albums recall the type of trio sets Barry Harris was recording for Riverside back in the mid to late '60s. That's not to say that Hammer doesn't have his own thing, but his muse is definitely within a particular period of jazz. Dennis Irwin is back again on bass, but the ringer here is drummer Jimmy Wormworth. Rarely heard from since a brief period he spent with Lou Donaldson back in the '50s, the drummer gives this disc a different flavor. Listen for such rare trinkets as Kenny Dorham's "Philly Twist" and Tommy Flanagan's "Minor Mishap."
Blues For Hiroshi
Sharp Nine 1030
A veteran of the bands of Nicholas Payton, Kenny Garrett, and most recently Carl Allen, pianist Anthony Wonsey seemed to be on the verge of making it big just a few years back. Unfortunately, like many jazz musicians of his era he quickly found himself in a market with diminishing returns. Blues For Hiroshi is a welcome new offering even if it errs too much on the safe side. Bassist Richie Goods and drummer Tony Reedus round out the trio and prove to be valuable collaborators. Most indicative of Wonsey's talents, a boisterous romp through the usually restrained "Waltz For Debby" gives the tune a healthy facelift.
Back In Town
One of the veteran artists who has made valuable contributions to Reservoir Records New York Piano Series since the start of the label some 20 years ago, Rob Schneiderman has recently released his ninth disc and first new album in six years. What has always endeared this listener to Schneiderman's work has been a complete mastery of the bebop language combined with the modal leanings of more contemporary players such as McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. He's also varied his albums over the years so that each one is distinctive in terms of personnel and material. Back In Town offers up a set of standards done in anything but a standard way, with added fire provided by youngsters Boris Kozlov and Johnathan Blake. It may not be his best yet, but it more than adequately proves that Schneiderman is still at the top of his game.
The Great Jazz Trio
Someday My Prince Will Come
Finally, it is with a bit of sadness that we turn our attention to some of the final recordings of the late Elvin Jones playing with Richard Davis and brother Hank as part of The Great Jazz Trio. Recorded in 2002 and 2003, Someday My Prince Will Come is a deceptively easygoing set of standards that carries with it all the experience of the three elder statesmen that came together for its creation. It would be hard to tire of the kind of grace and elegance that Hank Jones brings to "The Shadow Of Your Smile" or "A Child Is Born." With a fine wine and possibly a few logs in the fireplace, you'll want to cuddle up with this one for some extended listening.