Close your eyes. Imagine you're in a jazz club near last call. Cigarette smoke drifts in lazy layers, making the stage a little dim. The piano trio is winding down. In the last set, they're playing what they feel like playing a mix of mostly familiar standards. They know the audience too is ready for a friendly wrap up.
Russell Schmidt's first release, Season of Change, brings to mind that scene.
Schmidt is an associate professor of jazz piano at Bowling Green State University. He plays with clean articulation and secure rhythm. Though this is a debut, it sounds more like the work of a self-confident valedictorian than an excited freshman. The other musicians are simpatico. Dave Morgan's base provides a solid underpinning. He has brief solos on most of the nine tracks. Jim Rupp uses a light touch on the drum set whether in the background, trading fours or taking one of a few solos. No DeJohnette-like bombs here.
Though Improvised lines stay closer to the melody than those heard on most trio albums nowadays, tempos are sometimes unexpected and nicely mixed. "My Ship" works better than I would have thought as a light bossa nova. Strayhorn's beautiful "Chelsea Bridge" stands up well to a moderate-speed waltz rhythm. Charles Lloyd's "Forest Flower" gets a lush two-handed treatment that gives it a totally different feel from the composer's well-known version with the Chico Hamilton Quintet. "Blue Room" and "Hey There" are taken at more usual tempos.
The least familiar tunes are "Infant Eyes" by Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround." Both are worth hearing and given their due. Schmidt even detours briefly from his usual style on the latter to give it a little free-jazz flavor.
The pianist wraps things up with a 78 rpm-length up-tempo version of Johnny Mercer's novelty tune, "I'm an Old Cowhand." I suspect he's making the point that a good time was had by all. And it's a good time for the listener as well. No boundaries stretched. No bold statements. But once in awhile it's good to relax with someone who still plays the melody--who lets us imagine a smoke-filled room--even in our post-Nader era.