Saturday 16 December 2006

Is this the jazz album of 2006?

I was interested to read the critics choice of albums for 2006 in Jazzwise magazine. I don’t own any of them, but I have heard tracks on the radio. Top of the list is Branford Marsalis - from what I have heard it’s in the classic acoustic jazz quartet tradition, and something that Branford could have made some ten or fifteen years ago. A few critics have mentioned the Metheny/Mehldau album, the second most played 2006 album on my iPOD. However, no one mentioned the most played album on my iPOD this year (and by implication the best) – Aaron Goldberg’s Worlds album. Aaron who? Good question. Though little known in this country, New Yorker Aaron is hopefully destined for great things.

18 months ago I saw my guitar hero, Kurt Rosenwinkel, at the Soho Pizza Express. The band included New Yorker Chris Cheek on tenor, a fantastic drummer called Eric Harland and the pianist Aaron Goldberg. A bit of research told me that Aaron is well known as a sideman for people like Betty Carter and Joshua Redman, Eric plays with Joshua and veteran vibes-player Bobby Hutcherson in the SFJAZZ Collective and Aaron and Eric play together in a trio that has recorded an album on which Kurt Rosenwinkel guests. Given the calibre of these musicians, it was worth checking out. The album exceeded my expectations by miles.

The trio includes bass player Reuben Rogers and the title "Worlds" seems to be a reference to range of influences at work on the music on this album. The opening track, Lambada de Serpente, starts with simple piano figure played over a three chord sequence before a snaking melody comes in on piano and bowed bass. The drums come in a with a loping latin feel, played by hand, gradually waking up as brushes come in. As with several of the tune, the first solo is on the bass. This suits the tune because it has plenty of space for subtleties to be heard.

Another highlight is Kianda’s Song, a two-minute jewel featuring the worldless voice of Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza. The piece has a strong Brazilian feel - not the Brazil of Jobim but that of Villa Lobos who combined folk music with JS Bach in pieces like Bachianas Brasileiras. A piano introduction precedes the tune sung by Luciana in a low-ish register, before moving up an octave. Her voice is stunning both in its range and its sensual qualities.

Unstablemates is very much in the stop start Bill Evans/Paul Motian tradition, seamlessly melding composed and improvised segments. The soloing has astrong does of bebop phrasing, but there isn't a single note wasted.

Ther are a couple of Jobim tunes - Modhina starts atmosphercially with plucked piano strings and the tune played out of time before moving into a slow bluesy feel for the soloing. Inutil Paisagem (Useless Landscape) is played very slowly and, overeall, feels most like the Brad Mehldau trio. Unusally, Reuben uses electric bass and takes the first solo, reminding me of guitarist Wes Montgomery who played bass on his Movin' Along album.

The best performance on the album is probably Oud to Omer, where they are joined by Kurt Rosenwinkel. The Oud in question is the four-stringed Middle-Eastern lute and the melody has has the intricate feel of an Egyptian or Turkish melody. Kurt's exploratory solo show off his virtuosity and his ability to take his solos to places rarely visited by other guitarists. He seems to explore every note available to him while still making rhythmic, harmonic and melodic sense.

These guys make beautiful music sound effortless. Their obvious virtuosity is completely subservient to the demands of the music, and they have play as if they have nothing to prove. It has a nice balance between sounding composed and improvised and could quite easily be heard in the concert hall or the jazz club.

Like the Brad Mehldau trio, this trio has its roots in the sound and approach of the early Bill Evans Trio. Both are tightly integrated units and both have the abilty to intelligently desconstruct and breathe life into standard tunes. With Brad Mehldau, the piano is usually firmly at the fore, with Aaron’s band there seems to be a better balance and more subtle interplay between the individual instruments. Brad relies a lot on rhythmic drive, whereas Aaron is a cooler player with strong sense of dynamics and composition. For Brad, the European classical/romantic piano tradition (e.g. Schubert) is an obvious reference point, whereas Aaron’s repertoire is more varied in terms of time feel and modality, often suggesting South American or Middle-Eastern references (Oud to Omer is an obvious example).

It’s highly likely there's not enough room in the world of jazz promotion to support another leading piano trio - I have seen no references to Aaron Goldberg in Jazzwise, for example. Don’t let that put you off, this truly is one of the outstanding albums of 2006.

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