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Rainmakers Dance by Uli Lenz

German hard-bop experimentalist pianist Uli Lenz is a name unfamiliar to most Americans. Born in 1955 in Frankfort, Lenz's early piano education came in the arena of classical music before the influence of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Earl Hines finally won out. While Lenz has worked with some of the biggest names in American jazz - recordings with Joe Chambers and Cecil McBee, and performed with Idris Muhammad, Steve Grossman and Don Menza, to name just a few - almost all of his work has been in Europe. For this 2001 studio date in New York he is joined by American icon Ira Coleman and Cuban dynamo Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez in 11 Lenz originals and one American standard.

To say Lenz has chops is one of the greatest understatements that can be written. His technical prowess is almost unlimited. He is able to do sweeping 6 octave runs in Traumatic Experiences that are flawless in their even attack and matchless speed. His glissandi in Orange Coalition float so smoothly you'd think he was depressing each note individually and then speeding up the tape and his ability to handle disjunctive rhythmic patterns in each hand in 1,2,3 Cuckoo! is humbling. Pairing Lenz with the rock solid Coleman and human steamroller Hernandez was a stroke of genius. The three create some moments of pure wizardry.

Yet technique alone does not a pianist or jazz recording make. The flaw with this recording is the coming together of musicians who all arrive for a two-day recording session but who have not worked together for an extended period of time. In a setting as fraught with failure as the piano trio, this can be a recipe for disaster. To really make this type of ensemble work each musician must be so familiar with the playing of the others that the music shows no signs of effort, just sympathetic reaction. To paraphrase many famous musicians, "It's not that they're scrambling eggs, it's how the eggs are scrambled."

There are a few too many moments when it's obvious Coleman and Hernandez don't know where Lenz is going with his harmonic ideas and conceptions. For example, on RIP Lenz builds a beautiful atonal/free-time amalgamation of rippling sheeted chordal arpeggios into one of the most musically perfect resolutions one could hope to hear, yet all Coleman and Hernandez do is keep time during these brilliant flashes. It's just too obvious they aren't familiar enough with Lenz's harmonic lexicon and therefore aren't able to add to the richness of the moment.

This, it must be understood, is just a minor flaw, because for the most part the three work together in total accord. Hernandez's powerful touch matches Lenz's hammering of left-handed chordal accompaniment patterns in true artful style, and at those moments when Coleman turns it on it seems like everyone is trying to play catch up to him. T.K. Blue adds a nice change of color on three numbers, but while there is no doubt there is a fire within him he struggles to find a personal voice on the three Lenz originals he appears on. To enjoy this album be prepared for both moments of awe, and a few of uncertainty.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Uli Lenz
  • CD Title: Rainmakers Dance
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Arkadia Jazz
  • Rating: Three Stars
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