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Seven on Eighty-Eight

Without a doubt, the piano trio provides an ideal format for jazz. Complex and yet ideally manageable, the grouping can speak with the authority of a big band or bring it down to a soft whisper. Furthermore, the bass and drums offer up enough variety in terms of sound and texture to keep it all interesting. Even after Bill Evans and others have had their say in terms of what the piano trio offers, the ensemble continues to be a viable one in the hands of some modern practitioners, as we shall see in this brief survey of some recent sides of the eighty-eight key variety.

A master technician who very rarely gets the kind of recognition that his talent deserves, George Cables brings us yet another in a long line of congenial trio dates for SteepleChase. One For My Baby (SteepleChase 31487) features bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Yoron Israel on a set of eight pieces that range from Ellington’s piquant "Drop Me Off In Harlem" to a pair of Wayne Shorter ditties. Possibly the lengthy "I Should Care" is the best place to admire Cables, as he weaves chorus after chorus in swinging fashion, with Israel keeping the pots on for a protracted stay of his own. Worth contemplating too is the wonderful sense of suspended animation that he creates on "Anna Maria," with both Anderson and Israel attentive to the pianist’s every move.

Not as well known as Cables by any stretch of the imagination, Jon Mayer is nonetheless a world class musician who has served in the role of sideman for several decades now under the leadership of such heavies as John Coltrane, Tony Scott, and Sarah Vaughn. With a meager catalog of recordings under his name and only one previous title as a leader, Mayer’s Full Circle (Reservoir 169) is not only valuable for the opportunity to hear the pianist at length but also for the genuine joie de vivre that is on display throughout. It would be hard to miss with bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis on hand and Mayer doesn’t skip a beat while surveying ten numbers that include two of his own originals. Bebop seems to be the order of the day and Mayer strings together intricate lines that ultimately get their weight from juicy left hand punctuations. Engineer Jim Anderson’s luminous sound adds considerably to the overall enjoyment of this sleeper, which also happens to be one of the best trio dates of recent memory.

Probably best remembered for a brief period he spent with Stan Getz, Andy LaVerne has been a prolific contributor to the SteepleChase catalog since the early heydays of the label. His latest recording, Know More (SteepleChase 31493), features Jay Anderson and Billy Hart performing an entire set of LaVerne originals and the diversity that comes from some ambitious writing allows this one to stand out from the crowd. The coyly titled "Sudden Wealth Syndrome" brings forth shades of McCoy Tyner with its modal vamp, while the title track approaches almost a boogaloo groove that seems to propel things into a new direction. Hart is a joy to hear throughout, either interjecting splashy sound effects or using his left hand to break up the beat in novel ways.

Just a tad over 30, Xavier Davis has made music his life through classical studies and a high profile gig with Tom Harrell as of late. Those in the know have sensed the potential inherent in this young musician, although it may be only now with the release of his maiden voyage, Innocence of Youth (Fresh Sound New Talent 128), that a wider audience will have the opportunity to admire this star on the rise. Part of a distinguished roster of young lions being produced for Spain’s Fresh Sound New Talent label, Davis finds himself in the company of two very talented peers, namely bassist Brandon Owens and drummer E.J. Strickland. The program is largely composed of Davis originals and the spiky "Milk With a Koolaid Chaser" not only give us a taste of the pianist’s humor but also his budding style, which freely mixes Monkonian dissonance with the crystalline tone of a Hancock ("Bell" vaguely recalls the mood of Herbie’s Speak Like a Child album).

In previous releases for SteepleChase, Lee Ann Ledgerwood has given the piano trio a new lease on life. Her meaty and cathartic forays draw heavily on the influence of John Coltrane, obtaining a sound that is as far removed from the typical cocktail style trio as is possible. For Paradox (SteepleChase 31467), Coltrane is once again in the back of Ledgerwood’s mind as she mounts "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" and the saxophonist’s own "Wise One" and "India." But it is not so much that Ledgerwood tries to copy Trane note for note as that she goes for the type of spiritual outpouring that characterized his most dramatic performances. Not one to lay back, Billy Hart is the perfect drummer for Ledgerwood and his interaction with her is one of the pleasures of this highly engaging listen.

Although Criss Cross Jazz producer Gerry Teekens has done much to provide a forum for young American jazz musicians to hone their craft, it’s only been recently that he’s recorded some his own Dutch countrymen for the label. Pianist Peter Beets has yet to make his mark on American audiences, but New York Trio (Criss Cross 1214) puts him in the limelight with Yankees Rodney Whitaker and Willie Jones IIII to great effect. Over half of the pieces are originals and they hold just enough originality to keep things perky. Take for instance "The Game," where Beets’ jagged vamp suggests that he has digested the strains of boogie and stride. For "It’s Happening," Whitaker’s bass sings in tandem with Beets’ left hand and Jones interjects some fills, thus giving the line a more varied and arranged sound. Two ballads and a blues fill out a set that cooks on high heat for most of its duration, thus providing a clear indication of Beets as a talented new aspirant with hopefully more to say in the near future.

Like his fellow SteepleChase artists, Michael Cochrane is a name that is probably not as well known as it should be. With bassist Calvin Hill and drummer Alan Nelson on board, Minor Matrix gives us yet another great opportunity to hear Cochrane as he explores a number of tunes associated with such fellow pianists as Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. The latter’s "Ask Me Know" is a difficult piece in that only the strongest improvisers can make it their own and Cochrane manages to do this by relying less on the kind of dissonances that characterized the master’s work and focusing more on his own unique harmonic language. In the end, nothing revelatory occurs, but Cochrane does manage to solidify his already prestigious voice.

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  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
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