In the liner notes to this, his sixth recording as a leader, pianist Ted Rosenthal refers to his trio’s versions of the standards they include ("A Sleepin’ Bee," "Let’s Cool One," and "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off") as not arrangements, but derangements. This immediately calls to mind one of Rosenthal’s contemporaries, Ethan Iverson, who makes a similar play on words in his Construction Zone/Deconstruction Zone series of recordings. And the comparison is not altogether off base. Both pianists base their styles on a gem-like interior that hides as much as it shows, the multi-faceted diamond-sheened surface displaying brilliance from a number of directions, meaty left-handed harmonies ricocheting off right-hand block chords, with slippery single-note runs sliding in between. Both pianists make sure to find bass and drum trio mates who have mastered the art of resiliency, fanning whatever moody flames their leader happens to introduce.
But beyond this point, there are more differences than similarities. Instead of being content like Iverson to divide and fracture without end, piecing apart already knotty themes until they are darkly transformed, Rosenthal manages to temper his cerebral trappings with a healthy dose of bluesy trills and intricacies, a penchant for openly-fingered resolutions, and an occasionally-erupting legato breeziness - all of which serves to lighten the mood and get toes tapping, even if it also compromises the originality of Rosenthal’s voice. Indeed, although he strives hard to emulate such blues drenched influences as Horace Parlan, Red Garland, and even Monk, his well-studied attempts to do so place him squarely in a contemporary jazz tradition of such standard-based swingers as Bill Mays or Jim McNeely: signs of the widespread proliferation of higher-level jazz education, which often - in the carefully learned attempt to speak in a rough and tumble jazz language - glosses its surface with a predictable set of substitutions and syncopations. Rosenthal is a fully competent pianist, who has clearly learned his exercises well; but perhaps a bit too well.
This quality is reflected clearly in the nature of Rosenthal’s compositions. "Eye on Monk" is a typically engaging modern rendition of accepted Monkian vocabulary - crashing, off-beat minor seconds dancing happily over ascending and descending pet themes: an exercise in quirkily dissonant thematic improvisation. "Madeiran Nights" is the typical exercise in odd-rhythm (6/8 here) ballad playing, experimenting with space and lingering resolutions. "New Theme" is an impressive bit of melodic development - particularly in the drum-piano exchanges that close the piece - but is still clearly focused on one particular technical conceit (the variation) rather than a full-fledged artistic statement, despite Rosenthal’s fluency in the matter. Even Monk’s "Let’s Cool One" is unable to avoid a self-conscious clinging to metric modulations, reducing the composer’s innovative approach to Jamey Aebersold-style "fun with tempo." Throughout the CD, Rosenthal is intent on approaching compositions like exercises, concentrating on their technical idiosyncrasies rather than overcoming them.
Still, it should be noted that - largely thanks to the sturdy but flexible snap of Dennis Irwin’s bass, and the impressively melodic contortions and colorations of Matt Wilson’s rhythmic intuition - Rosenthal mostly manages to play these exercises the best way he can: as thoroughly enjoyable musical moments. His technical confidence and his comfort with his band mates finally pays off in the closing "Back Up," in which a brilliantly fractured theme somehow melts, under a propulsive rhythmic attack, into a furious flash of triads, arpeggiated descending patterns, and incorporations of sections of the theme. One phrase loops around and catapults into the next, pulling the listener along for a stirring game of catch-up. But at little over three minutes, this final onslaught leaves a fantastic sense of "What if?", a perfunctory, anti-climactic too little too late. What it does positively remind the listener, however, is that even if one can not always witness the full-throated cry of a fully-formed voice, there are moments of discovery along the way that are almost as intriguing.