Solo Piano: Larry Ham, Louis Mazetier, Marcos Jimenez & Bert van den Brink
Bert van den Brink
There never seems to be a shortage of brilliant solo piano releases; here are four by some players you may have never heard before.
Larry Ham has been playing jazz for a long time, having paid his dues in the big bands of both Lionel Hampton and Illinois Jacquet, while also working with Junior Cook and Dakota Staton and appearing on various Arbors CDs by Earl May, Scott Robinson and Dave Glasser. This solo session, Just Me, Just You (Ham's second release as a leader) blends swinging arrangements of standards, inventive takes of jazz tunes and well-conceived originals. Most of the standards the pianist selected are not only older than he is, but have been frequently explored by other jazz musicians. Yet he manages to find a fresh approach to each without ever losing sight of the melody. A swinging, understated setting of "It Could Happen to You" contrasts with the intricate bop treatment of "My Shining Hour." He includes a trio of jazz tunes: an elegant take of Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," a waltz setting of Ellington/ Strayhorn's "The Star-Crossed Lovers" and a sentimental look at Duke Pearson's "You Know I Care." Ham's originals also merit strong praise: "Brenda's Waltz" is a bittersweet modal piece with a lyricism that shows the influence of Bill Evans; "Ridin' the Blues" is a sauntering cowboy-flavored tune that is likely a perfect set-closer for the pianist and "The Ring" is a sentimental ballad. The uncredited calypso "Don't Mess Wit' Nobody But Me" shows Ham at his most playful. This is a rewarding solo date by a pianist deserving of more frequent opportunities to record as a leader.
Frenchman Louis Mazetier is one of relatively few active stride piano specialists in Europe. He has limited exposure in North America, aside from a pair of CDs issued by Stomp Off, while also sharing the spotlight with Dick Hyman on a combined solo and duo piano session for the Swiss label Jazz Connaisseur. Tributes, Portraits and Other Stories features Mazetier in a pair of solo sessions that mix stride piano favorites, standards and originals. Jelly Roll Morton's "The Pearls" is one of his most demanding pieces, though Mazetier manages to put a bit of his personal touch in his interpretation and then masters two gems by James P. Johnson"You've Got to Be Modernistic" and "Keep Off the Grass," neither one of which is played with any frequency. It's hard not to compare his interpretation of "Tea For Two" to Art Tatum's show-stopping 1933 recording due to some of the intricate waterfall-like runs, though Mazetier's stride-oriented arrangement is played at a far more easygoing tempo. "Sweet and Lovely" isn't usually heard in a stride setting, but the pianist's slow, bluesy treatment gives it a very different sound. Mazetier's originals also stand out. "Simply the Blues" salutes Tatum's bluesy side in a thoughtful, low-key manner. Duke Ellington is honored with "Portrait of a Portraitist," a work that recalls his "Portrait of the Lion." The lyrical "François" honors a fellow stride player who took his own life in 1992.
Marcos Jimenez is likely a new name as the pianist has recorded exclusively for European and Japanese labels. A native of Spain who relocated to Switzerland at a young age, Jimenez is unaccompanied on I Thought About You, which mostly concentrates on standards. He has an Impressionist approach to slow ballads, using lush chords while allowing the music plenty of room to breathe, as in his pastoral arrangements of "My One and Only Love" and "Bess, You is My Woman Now." Jimenez takes a different path than expected through Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Dream," playing the bass line with a softer touch than most pianists while emphasizing the lyricism of its theme, adding a few glistening detours along the way. He slows the tempo of "I Thought About You" to a crawl, working in a bluesy flavor, while "Black Orpheus" emphasizes the melody in a very subdued setting. Jimenez delves into less familiar works like the bittersweet ballad "Alfonsina Y El Mar" and the hymn-like "Un Oranger," two songs that deserve to be better known in the New World. His one original, "Lisa's Land III," is reminiscent of Bill Evans.
Bert van den Brink has quite a resume, having worked with Toots Thielemans, Chet Baker, Nat Adderley, Benny Golson, Lee Konitz and vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Denise Jannah. Yet because he too has recorded for European labels exclusively, North American audiences have had little exposure to him. But the veteran pianist's work for the Challenge labelas a soloist, duo partner, leader or sidemanhas shown his many gifts. Bert's Bytes is made up in part of musical fragments the pianist posted on his website with the idea of building them into full compositions, as well as improvisations and earlier pieces, plus two songs by Clare Fischer. "Themes and Variations" provides an extended introduction to the disc, often with a semi-classical flavor. "Fourths" is likely a wholly improvised miniature, marked by terrific use of space. His sublime "Blues For Oliver" has a whimsical air, full of surprising twists. Fans of his earlier CDs should recognize "Woods," previously with fellow pianists Enrico Pieranunzi and also Clare Fischer. This time around he tackles this shimmering, lyrical waltz as a solo, stretching its boundaries a bit farther. "Chase Blues" has R&B written all over it, highlighted by its boogie bass line and playful theme, while the brief "Seconds" is full of tension. The lyrical interpretation of Fischer's bossa nova "Pensativa" also helps put the stamp of approval on Bert van den Brink.
Tracks and Personnel
Just You, Just Me
Tracks: My Romance: I'll Keep Lovin' You; Just You, Just Me; Brenda's Waltz; How About You?; You Know I Care; It Could Happen To You; Don't Mess Wit Nobody But Me; Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered; Ridin' the Blues; If I Should Lose You; I Can't Get Started; My Shining Hour; The Ring; The Star-Crossed Lovers.
Personnel: Larry Ham: piano.
Tributes, Portraits and Other Stories
Tracks: You've Got To Be Modernistic; Sweet and Lovely; In August at St. Germain des Pres; Tea For Two; Significant Ladies Suite; Sweet Smile; Instinct of Conservation; Russian Greek; Surprises; Walking My Baby Back Home; Anitra's Dance; Simply the Blues; Tango Seville; Just You, Just Me; I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan; Sneakaway; Portrait of a Portraitist; Can't We Be Friends?; Skylark; Keep Off the Grass; Francois; Nostalgic Walk.
Personnel: Louis Mazetier: piano.
I Thought About You
Tracks: But Beautiful; Alfonsina Y El Mar; All Of You; My One And Only Love; Lisa´s Land III; Bess You Is My Woman; Monk´s Dream; Un Oranger; I Thought About You; Black Orpheus.
Personnel: Marcos Jimenez: piano.
Tracks: Theme and Variations; Fourths; Valse Cliche; Little Owl; Thirds; Blues for Oliver; Pensativa; Early Autumn; Just Octaves; Tristesse; Woods; Chase Blues; Seconds; Bachlude nr. 1.
Personnel: Bert van den Brink: piano.