Brooklyn-born, Manhattan-based Joan Stiles is an iconic New York jazz musician. Hurly-Burly features several of Stiles' strengths: bop-style piano, arranging, and band-leading. But she doesn't stop there; she also has a full-time gig on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, in addition to teaching theory and piano at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. A true pro by all measures.
Hurly-Burly is Stiles' second record, following the 2004 release of Love Call, which featured heavy-hitters such as Clark Terry, Frank Wess, and Warren Vaché. Hurly-Burly may not have the same recognizable all-star cast, but never mind; the music is still heavenly.
The record is full of joyous, sometimes even humourous jazz, played with top-flight musicality. The evidence begins with the opening track, a kind of tongue-in-cheek mash-up cleverly arranged by Stiles called "The Brilliant Corners of Thelonius' Jumpin' Jeep" (mixing from two Monk tunes, "Brilliant Corners" and "Thelonius," along with Johnny Hodges' "The Jeep is Jumping".) Then the mood shifts right into a lilting 3/4 time tune, Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," here arranged by Stiles for a bass-less trio of herself, Steve Wilson on alto, and drummer Lewis Nash. The title track, "Hurly Burly," is a Stiles original with echoes of one of Stiles' musical mentors, pianist Mary Lou Williams, who often doubled the bass line with her left hand. It features the full sextet, offering solo space for the excellent work of Steve Wilson on alto sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, and Stiles.
The rest of record is filled with other gems, moving back and forth between trios, duets, quartets, and the full sextet. The variety keeps the whole recording interesting and fresh. There is a beautiful rendition of Monk's "Pannonica" with just Pelt on flugelhorn accompanied by Stiles. The other horn players, Wilson on alto and Joel Frahm on tenor sax, also get their feature pieces; Wilson on an up-tempo bop tune by Mary Lou Williams called "Knowledge;" and Frahm on the haunting Jimmy Rowles ballad "The Peacocks." The record closes with two full sextet pieces: the best of the two is a romping blues by Stiles called "Bluesicity" that stretches out nicely for horn and piano solos.
Stiles' piano is brilliant throughout Hurly-Burly, moving effortlessly between tempos, group settings, and moods. Her solos are original and the horn players surely must have loved her comping skills behind them. Stiles also sings on two tunes: "What Would I Do Without You?" by Ray Charles and the closer, "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee." Perhaps she felt this created even more variety--or she just wanted to have her own fun--but her vocal skills don't match her piano playing or the instrumental talents of her musical colleagues, and Hurly-Burly would have been even more perfect without the singing.
Despite this small setback, Hurly-Burly is full of wonderful New York jazz that will keep you smiling every time you listen.