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Roberta Piket: West Coast Trio

Victor L. Schermer By

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This album brings together New York-based pianist Roberta Piket with two outstanding musicians from the Los Angeles area: bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and drummer Joe La Barbera. Hence the title "Roberta Piket: West Coast Trio." To spice things up, Piket brought along her long-time cohort Billy Mintz on percussion on one track, and special guest guitarist Larry Koonse on two of them. The result is an interesting blend of West Coast "cool" and sophisticated New York mainstream that pleases the ear and moves things along at a lively clip.

The piano trio occupies its own place in jazz history. Its foundation was set down by pianists like Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans, and its special feature is close coordination between the piano, bass, and drums that allows for intimate interactions. Keith Jarrett's "Standards" trio became the iconic piano trio during the 1990s. The current album emerges primarily from the Bill Evans tradition, with drummer La Barbera having been part of Evans' last trio (with Mark Johnson on bass), and the fact that Evans himself migrated to Los Angeles at a key point in his career. The interactions between the West and East Coast idioms (which actually has been present during much of the evolution of jazz since the 1930s) creates a very pleasant synthesis in the hands of musicians as competent as these.

While the album embodies the romantic and impressionist qualities of Evans' trios, along with their understated dynamics, the difference is that, whereas Evans promoted "conversations" between the musicians in a kind of back and forth free associative relationship, Piket's trio has got a tight coordination going, which is so well synchronized that at times, the three sound like one instrument. La Barbera's expressive use of brushes on cymbals and snares gives the music a painterly quality, and Oleszkiewicz lays down a beat smooth as silk. Their drive gives Piket an opportunity to have left-hand/right-hand conversations with herself that create real musical interest. Guitarist Koonse similarly adds stimulating improvisations on "A Bridge to Nowhere" (a Piket original) and George Shearing's "Conception."

A breakdown of the tracks will explain how these characteristics become manifest as the album unfolds.

Beginning with her original, "Mentor," dedicated to her teacher, the incomparable Richie Beirach, Piket breaks out into lively swing, assisted by La Barbera's lyrical ride on the cymbals, which is a hallmark of the album. (I was going to suggest they are sex cymbals, begging the reader's and Joe's forgiveness.) Towards the end, Piket, well aware of the downbeats, plays around with them in a way that reflects her special ability to have a tune so internalized in her gut that she can invent more freely around its parameters than many of her peers.

Richard Rodgers' Great American Songbook standard, "Falling in Love with Love" evokes recollections of Piket's late friend and advocate, Marian McPartland. Her well-organized harmonies have a Tommy Flanagan feel, while the trades between bass and drums stress simplicity. The rendition emphasizes 3/4 waltz time, the way Rodgers wrote it and wanted it to be played.

Piket's "A Bridge to Nowhere" is a wistful ballad built around a pentatonic scale. Koonse does fine service on this track with his own touch of Pat Martino's way of taking ballads to full depth of emotion just by getting the most out of every note.

Chick Corea's "Humpty Dumpty" gives Piket a chance to show what she can do with an idosyncratic tune taken at a fast pace. She comes forth with some great left-hand comping in perfect synch with drums and bass. In the midsection of the piece, you will hear her remarkable parallel octave improvising and the precise way in which La Barbera's drum solo catches hold of Piket's piano rhythm.

"Flor de Lis" is a gorgeous samba, and the band takes obvious pleasure in making the most of its rhythm and melody.

The ballad "Yemenja," by under-recognized pianist John Hicks, who died young, has a story-telling quality with a hint of Leonard Cohen's song, "Suzanne" and its mysterious sense of love. The little we have of Hicks on recording tells us he was a pianist who very much embodied what Piket is about today. She makes the connection to him through this tune.

I don't know if Bill Evans ever recorded "My Buddy," but he should have. This track comes closest of all to Evans' groups. Oleszkiewicz' bass solo has the lyrical and resilient quality that Scott LaFaro and Eddie Gomez gave to their solos in Evans' trios. The tune has a 1920s sentimentality that modern jazz players shy away from. Chet Baker was one of few jazz musicians who was able to make this one his own.

George Shearing's "Conception" is done here in emulation of his own piano style, with clusters of chords around each note of the melody. Koonse gets in on the action with a nice solo a la Herb Ellis. The Shearing influence makes this the most swinging track on the album, and there are nice interactions and unison playing between Koonse and Piket.

On the concluding track of the over-played "Windmills of Your Mind," Piket is obviously not as interested in the movie's emotions as what she could do with tune's own "windmill" quality of circling around itself. A brief quote from Bizet's "Carmen" is unexpected but a propos. Piket's dramatic ending is the one reference to the Thomas Crown Affair film.

To summarize, this enjoyable album harks back to the 1950s-60s when cool jazz and East Coast brilliance fertilized one another. And it includes some especially beautiful songs which linger long in memory. The musicians are highly attuned to one another, and La Barbera, in particular, is magnificent.

Track Listing: Mentor, Falling in Love with Love, A Bridge to Nowhere, Humpty Dumpty, Flor de Lis, Yemenja, My Buddy, Conception, Windmills of Your Mind

Personnel: Roberta Piket, piano; Darek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Joe La Barbera, drums.

Title: West Coast Trio | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: 13th Note

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