Azure is a talented jazz quartet from the Netherlands and their debut offering is entitled When She Smiles. I’m assuming they took their group name from the beautiful Duke Ellington ballad (Drifting, dreaming in an azure mood. Stardust gleaming through my solitude). I make this assumption because Azure’s music pays tribute to some of the influential figures in classic jazz. They don’t specifically pay tribute by performing standards, but the CD has a certain timeless quality to it; at times similar to the great music of the jazz masters of old.
All of the nine titles contained on When She Smiles are original well-crafted compositions by pianist Pierre-François Blanchard and/or guitarist Rogier Schneemann. Drummer Antonio Pisano and bassist Eric Heijnsdijk complete the quartet. Having played together for awhile, each of the four members of Azure is aware of how much space to give, when to step forward, and when to lay back. This by-product of familiarity and mutual respect yields excellent results.
The title cut "When She Smiles" opens the disc, and contains some great interplay by all four members. It’s a peacefully soft composition that contains some percussive splashes by Antonio Pisano and gentle acoustic bass touches by Eric Heijnsdijk that frame the piano melody of Blanchard.
A more driving sound is found on "RnP." This is due, in part, to the opening fluid guitar work by Schneemann and the alternating tempo from the shared lead piano by Blanchard. The song has a rock/classical sound similar to "Pictures at an Exhibition" era Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It’s an area that I’d personally like to see Azure explore more; they are impressive with their depth and shading on this song.
The next three songs are all predominately intimate, reflective, and slower tempo songs. "B-Y-You" has an intriguing haunting atmosphere. Heijnsdijk’s bass riffs entwine with Blanchard’s echoing piano with support by Pisano’s tight drumming. "By Heart" begins moodily brooding, while still maintaining its beauty. Pisano keeps the opening rhythm by using his sticks on the drum rims. Eventually the song becomes engulfed in a swirling maelstrom thanks to Schneeman and his hard raining of notes, only to return to its original somewhat dark pace in the end. "Inmost" is a contemplative group effort with an easy flow and groove. Schneeman plays leisurely and beautifully, carefully choosing his notes, with a casual Wes Montgomery quality.
"Azur" also contains some fine and tasteful upbeat guitar work by Rogier Schneeman, with nods to John McLaughlin, on this jazz fusion endeavor. Once again, Pisano is up for the task and adds a great amount of energy to the mix. Blanchard’s piano runs are insistent and provide basic rhythmic accompaniment, flavoring the song and supplying a firm base for Schneeman to rise from.
"Ballade Pour Une Pâquerette" is another relaxed song, crawling along unrushed. It attempts to prove the adage that "sometimes less is more." "A Mon Amour" and "Berceuse Pour Maëlise" fit similar molds, revealing Pierre-François Blanchard’s soul of a classical pianist. I certainly don’t profess to be an authority on classical music, but that is the impression that I reach. Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, two jazz pianists with strong classical training and leanings who have provided some lasting compositions, come to mind. The major focus of this disc is clearly on Blanchard through the themes of his compositions and his piano, although all the other musicians in this guitar-piano jazz quartet pull their weight, and do have their moments.
On When She Smiles, Azure makes a very strong statement. I’m looking forward to more from this talented young ensemble.