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Two OA2 Records Releases Featuring Pianist Michael Kocour

Mark Sullivan By

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Two recent releases from OA2 Records feature piano playing and production by Michael Kocour, a longtime member of the Chicago jazz scene (and a regular sideman with the late James Moody and Benny Golson). He has been director of jazz studies at Arizona State University since 2004.

Enter the album name hereUnhinged Sextet
Clarity
OA2 Records
2015

Unhinged Sextet sounds like many things—for example: swinging, cohesive, hot—but "unhinged" is not one of them. The group is a collaborative brought together by long-standing mutual associations, but they had never played together until gathering in Arizona to rehearse and record this album. Clearly their belief that they would work well together was borne out by the results: I defy anyone to think this was a first time session after hearing it. The program is all originals, with everyone except drummer Dom Moio contributing at least one tune.

The opener "Unhinged" could be the group's signature: a Latin flavored hard bop burner with all of the players fired up. Kocour contributes a bit of outside piano, which is about as unhinged as the session gets. "Far From East" changes the group dynamic with a theme that employs a dialog between tenor saxophonist Matt Olson and trumpeter Vern Sielert, with ensemble commentary. "Watch Out Of The Way" gives drummer Moio some space, featuring a sax/drum duet and a (short, tasteful) drum solo. The title tune was written by bassist Jon Hamar, but features the trumpet. Trumpeter Sielert returns the favor by writing one of the album's most distinctive bass lines on "Derecho."

The song list continues with the tenor sax feature "Too Deep" (written by Kocour), the ballad "Leaving Soon" from the pen of alto saxophonist Will Campbell, and "Las Palmas," which includes a bass solo. The album ends on a high note with Kocour's "Squiggles," which surely recalls Thelonious Monk, without being at all derivative. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but it's a first-class collection of modern jazz, with strong playing and exciting, varied original compositions.

Enter the album name hereMichael Kocour
Wherever You Go, There You Are
OA2 Records
2015

For this solo piano project Kocour chose to emphasize standards. But it's neither a straightforward mainstream program, nor an aggressively experimental one. Kocour is a brilliant technician, but he never uses technique to show off—only to tell a story. Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" opens the set, with so much independence between the hands that it's almost a duet. "Winter's Spell" is the first original, a more conventional approach to a tune that sounds like a standard. Then Clare Fischer's "Pensativa" introduces a new wrinkle, the first of three tracks performed on Fender Rhodes electric piano. It's an interesting contrast, and a tune well suited to the instrument. Kocour says that he tried this tune (and the later Eddie Harris one) on acoustic piano first, but wasn't satisfied with the results. The electric instrument also has associations with this repertoire: Eddie Harris and James Moody both made recordings featuring it.

Kocour's fresh approach to the standards really comes into focus on "Just In Time," which opens with a busy accompaniment pattern, revealing the melody slowly: it's a minute or so into the three-minute track before we hear the whole thing. Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance" brings back the electric piano for a funky arrangement especially suited to the Rhodes.

The title tune (another Kocour original) comes from a saying James Moody often used to conclude stories told onstage. Something about this recalls Chick Corea—not a comparison that occurred to me before this track—but it also includes some very traditional walking bass accompaniment. It's easy to believe that Kocour has also recorded on organ, which frequently takes the bass role. Thelonious Monk's "Evidence" closes the set, another reference (like "Squiggles" on the Sextet album) to the seminal bebop pianist and composer who Kocour earlier spotlighted on the album Speaking in Tongues (Tempest, 2006). It's a gentle, slightly abstract treatment, which again includes walking bass in one section.

The pianist on this solo project is readily identifiable from the Sextet recording: swinging mainstream jazz piano. But it's an interesting view of Kocour's creative range when free of accompanying duties, and it's a broad range indeed.

Tracks and Personnel

Clarity

Tracks: Unhinged; Far From East; Watch Out Of The Way; Clarity; Too Deep; Down South; Scout, No Doubt; Leaving Soon; Derecho; Change; Las Palmas; Squiggles.

Personnel: Will Campbell:alto saxophone; Matt Olson:tenor saxophone; Vern Sielert:trumpet; Michael Kocour:piano; Jon Hamar:bass; Dom Moio:drums.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Tracks: Con Alma; Winter's Spell; Pensativa; How About You?; Just In Time; Freedom Jazz Dance; How Deep Is The Ocean; Wherever You Go, There You Are; An Affair To Remember; Evidence.

Personnel: Michael Kocour: piano, Fender Rhodes.

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