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JAZZ | Spotlight

Putting Piano Stage Left, Right and Center

September 03, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is the Times' jazz writer

It's beginning to seem as though everywhere there's a piano, there's someone to play some jazz on it. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's probably accurate to say that piano jazz CDs represent a disproportionate number of all the albums that arrive every week.

That's not necessarily bad, because the piano--an instrument that is an orchestra in itself--provides plenty of opportunity for different forms of expression. Here's a group of current releases that proves the point:

Rachel Z. "On the Milky Way Express" (*** 1/2, Tone Center Records). A close association with Wayne Shorter has given Rachel Z a remarkably sympathetic understanding of the great saxophonist-composer's music. And remarkable music it is, filled with quick, fleeting melodies, unexpected harmonic twists and turbulent undercurrents of rhythm. The Rachel Z trio--with Miriam Sullivan on bass and Allison Miller on drums--provide stunning readings of an all-Shorter program that reaches from the quirky mixture of rhythm and harmony in the title track to his classic "Footprints." All of it is well done, thoughtful and worthy of repeated hearing.

Ernan Lopez-Nussa. "From Havana To Rio" (***, Velas Records). He may be relatively unknown in this country, but Cuban pianist Lopez-Nussa has skills and style that compare favorably with the work of the far more familiar Jesus "Chucho" Valdes. In this unusual interfacing of elements, he has recorded in Rio, mixing familiar Latin jazz pieces such as Mario Bauza's "Mambo Inn" with his originals, a piece by the gifted Brazilian composer Guinga and Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." It may sound like an unlikely musical stew, but Lopez-Nussa has no trouble with the ingredients, blending them in a fashion that manages the unlikely task of combining the rhythms of Brazil and Cuba into a tasty musical feast.

The Drummonds. "When You Wish Upon a Star" (***, 32 Jazz.) The headliners here are bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Drummond, who are unrelated. But the star voice in the session is pianist Renee Rosnes, who is married to Billy Drummond. The program is basic and to the point: piano trio renderings of 10 familiar standards. In some pianists' hands, that could be a recipe for boredom. But Rosnes is an enormously resourceful player, finding the hidden gold in overdone items such as "Autumn in New York" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," and discovering jazz qualities in unlikely sources such as "Danny Boy" and "The Sound of Silence." This is not jazz that will startle or surprise, but it does entertain and enlighten.

Mike Melvoin. "The Capitol Sessions" (***, Naim Audio.) You've heard Melvoin more than you might think, performing with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams to Barbra Streisand and Tom Waits. But he would probably be the first to say that his heart is in jazz, which is obvious in this scintillating collection of tunes recorded with bassist Charlie Haden and--on three tracks--longtime associate singer Bill Henderson. The session, which was recorded with as little technical intrusion as possible (Naim is a high-end audio company), has an engaging feeling of spontaneity. Understandably, given the process, the results have some uneven moments. But the better passages--both instrumentalists' passionate work on "Blues for Leroy," and Henderson's characteristic jauntiness on "Ruth's Waltz"--are utterly delightful.

Marian McPartland. "The Single Petal of a Rose" (***, Concord Jazz). The many fans of McPartland's long-running NPR show, "Piano Jazz," will know what to expect from this latest outing, subtitled "The Essence of Duke Ellington." Always harmonically insightful, always sensitive to the overall arc of a song, she is in fine form here with both the familiar ("Take the 'A' Train"--actually by Billy Strayhorn) and the lesser known ("Cerulescence"). McPartland is warmly accompanied on half the tracks by bassist Bill Douglass. But she is at her best in the solo efforts, which allow her to freely probe the seemingly infinite inner possibilities of Ellington's remarkable songs.

Misha Mengelberg. "Solo" (** 1/2, Buzz Records, distributed by Challenge Records). Mengelberg is best known for his decades of devotion to the avant-garde in general and to the European ensemble I.S.P. (for Instant Composers Pool), which appears tonight at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. His apparently spontaneous inventions here call up resonances with Cecil Taylor as well as an entire generation of European contemporary composers of the mid-20th century. But like so much of the music produced via jazz versions of avant-garde works, it tends to be clearly more fascinating to make than it is to hear. Mengelberg comes up with occasionally appealing sonorities, and often generates pulsating climaxes and mysterious textures. Ultimately, however, the experience becomes too wearing, too consciously intellectual in a fashion that diminishes the avant-garde belief in the quality of inspiration that comes with total spontaneity.

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