Solo Piano: 5 by 4
Solo piano is the ultimate test of any jazz pianist, since there are no additional musicians to fill in any holes. Among the recent releases featuring solo pianists are a tribute to a Brazilian master and a vintage recording that lay forgotten for decades, along with several sessions recorded for release in the Japanese market.
The conservatory-trained Fred Hersch has explored many different jazz styles with a wide variety of leaders. Plays Jobim is not the first time he has played bossa novas but this is a rare opportunity to hear him delve into the genre exclusively.
In his liner notes, he describes seeking "to retain the essence of Jobim's music while filtering it through my own perspective." His rhythmically intense treatment of the popular "O Grande Amor" reflects his classical training. The hushed setting of "Insensatez" is perfect for this wistful ballad. "Corcovado" has long been an essential number for jazz pianists, especially those who accompany singers; this slow, whispering arrangement shimmers even without the presence of its lyrics. Hersch was fortunate to obtain a hefty catalogue of Jobim's music from the composer's estate and searched for lesser gems to include. Among those he uncovered are the lyrical, elegant "Luiza"; a touching medley of "Modniha" and "Ohla Maria" and the peppy street dance "Brigas Nunca Mais," the latter adding percussionist Jamey Haddad.
Richie Beirach began as a classical student before switching to jazz. He has led numerous dates of his own but remains a talent deserving of wider recognition, as few of his many recordings since the turn of the century have been made in his homeland.
The aura of Beirach's classical background is pervasive throughout much of Jazz Adagio, whether he is playing repertoire material, standards from the Great American Songbook or original works. He opens and closes the disc with the "Adagio" from Mozart's "Piano Concerto in A minor KV 488," which gives the release a moody air. He slows down Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach's "Short Prelude No. 4" to bring out its lyricism. Inventive, lush chords in the treatment of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" turn it into a rhapsody while the spacious setting of Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be" is a lyrical masterpiece. Beirach takes a very different path for "My Funny Valentine," using the sustain pedal extensively in the introduction and choosing darker chords, making this standard a bit more melancholy than usual. His originals are striking, especially "Ballad For Bill Evans," which captures the essence of the late jazz pianist without sounding derivative.
Hal Schaefer is the least widely known of these four jazz pianists, though his resume is an extensive one, dating back to his start as a professional player at the age of 12 during the '40s. He served in bands led by Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, Harry James, Boyd Raeburn, plus Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and accompanied singers like Peggy Lee, June Christy, Billy Eckstine and others. He left to compose and arrange film music in Hollywood, where he also became a singing coach for actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Susan Heyward.
How Do You Like This Piano Playing?, a vintage recording, made circa 1960, is a long-lost private studio recording, the pianist discovering it nearly 45 years later in his tool shed behind his Ft. Lauderdale home, where it managed to survive to be remastered for release. The performances come off as on-the-spot improvisations, including a slow, often-dissonant rendition of the normally robust "There's No Business Like Show Business" and a surprisingly introspective "Love For Sale" that has its share of twists. He works his way indirectly into both "All the Things You Are" and "Speak Low," a refreshing change from the common arrangements heard all too often. The spontaneity of the music makes one wish Schaefer had taken more time out to record during his long career.
Eddie Higgins is another pianist who deserves far wider recognition than he has received among US jazz fans. His long resumé of recordings includes albums as a sideman with Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan, while he spent a dozen years leading the house trio at the London House in Chicago. His introduction to Venus owner Tetsuo Hara was very beneficial, leading to dozens of sessions for the Japanese label.
Standards By Request 1st Day and its companion release both were recorded during back-to-back sessions in August 2008, mixing selections from each date on both CDs. On the first volume, Higgins concentrates mostly on music written during the '30s-40s. He adds a soft bossa nova undercurrent in his lush arrangement of "Gone With the Wind" at first, though he gradually evolves into a mix of stride and swing. The reflective arrangement of "My Old Flame" is filled with magical inner voicings. Among more recent compositions, Jule Styne's "It's Magic" and Jobim's "Portrait in Black and White" have rarely been played with so much emotion.
2nd Day is very much the equal to the first volume, also focusing primarily on standards that have been around for decades. One of the pianist's greatest strengths is an ability to play a piece at a slower tempo than most musicians, using his gift for creating new variations on the familiar chords without losing the essence of the song. But unlike most of the selections, Higgins interprets Edgar Sampson's "If Dreams Come True" in a brisk swinging setting. Jerome Kern's "Ill Wind" is one of the highlights, Higgins softly vocalizing to himself at the end . Higgins delves into the vast repertoire of Duke Ellington with an introspective look at the nearly forgotten ballad from the '40s, "I Didn't Know About You" (revived by a number of jazz artists in recent years), and a suitably dreamy "In a Sentimental Mood." Many interpreters seem to go through the motions with Jobim's "Corcovado" but Higgins adds significant variations to keep it fresh. The pianist also includes one of his own originals, "Brownsburg Blues," an elegant swinger played in a strolling manner that suggests a man softly singing to himself as he makes his way on foot. He appropriately wraps the CD with a swinging rendition of Arthur Schwartz' "By Myself."
Tracks and Personnel
Fred Hersch Plays Jobim
Tracks: Por Toda Minha Vida; O Grande Amor; Luiza; Meditacao; Insensatez; Brigas Nunca Mais; Modinha/Olha Maria; Desafinado; Corcovado.
Personnel: Fred Hersch: piano; Jamey Haddad: percussion (6).
Tracks: Adagio-Piano Concerto in A Minor KV488; Children's Song No. 1; Lucky To Be Me; Musica Callada No. 22; Cossack's Forewell; Short Prelude No. 4; For All We Know; Melody Eternal; Lost In The Stars; Prelude No. 4; My Funny Valentine; Ballad For Bill Evans; I'll Take Romance; Moon River; Adagio Reprise.
Personnel: Richie Beirach: piano.
How Do You Like This Piano Playing?
Tracks: There's No Business Like Show Business; My Romance; Dancing in the Dark; All The Things You Are; Love For Sale; The Man I Love; Speak Low.
Personnel: Hal Schaefer: piano.
Standards By Request 1st Day
Tracks: It's Magic; Easy Living; Gone With The Wind; I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; Dear Old Stockholm; I Thought About You; You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To; My Old Flame; Once Upon A Summertime; Smoke Gets In Yours Eyes; Portrait In Black And White; In the Wee Small Hours; The Man I Love; These Foolish Things; Stella By Starlight.
Personnel: Eddie Higgins: piano.
Standards By Request 2nd Day
Tracks: If Dreams Come True; Dancing in the Dark; I Didn't Know About You; How Long Has This Been Going On; I Don't Know What Time It Was; Don't Explain; Ill Wind; In a Sentimental Mood; Brownsburg Blues; Corcovado; Street of Dreams; Time on My Hands;My One and Only Love; The Things We Did Last Summer; By Myself.
Personnel: Eddie Higgins: piano.