Piano Renaissance

Jazz is Undergoing a
Piano Renaissance
by Bob McMurray

The term renaissance can mean at once a reawakening of classic sensibilities as well as an embodiment of the values of the modern world. If you watch carefully you can see that there is one happening right now in the world of jazz. Take a look around you. Brad Mehldau, Benny Green. A multitude of talented jazz pianists is forging their modern playing, modern sounds and modern values with the consciousness of the classic jazz piano tradition. Jacky Terrasson, Danilo Perez. They’ve learned the lessons from Art Tatum and Count Basie. They’ve viewed the virtuosity of McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, and Oscar Peterson. They’ve heeded the hip-ness of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver, Hank Jones, and Bill Evans. They’ve minded their mentoring from Sir Roland Hanna, Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron. Cyrus Chestnut, Dave Kikowski. Benefiting from their place in the lineage of jazz history they each have burst on the scene with passion and purpose. Perhaps at no other time in history has jazz piano been teeming with as much talent as there is right now.

Still, maybe because of this multitude there remain some of these players who are underexposed relative to their talent. You can presume that they are all mature, technically brilliant, and musical geniuses in any way you’d care to measure. Marcus Roberts, Mulgrew Miller. I won’t tell you what you can already find out about them by doing an Internet search. What I will tell you is I’ve experienced every one of them first hand. Every one of them has shown their unique joy to their audience. Orrin Evans, Anthony Wonsey. Each one is different and worth your time and efforts to see live. I have the utmost amazement, respect, and admiration for each of them and I am perplexed by their relative anonymity. Like single malt Scotch each one – Eric Reed, Aaron Goldberg, Bill Charlap, Geoff Keezer, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – is a masterwork challenging our sense of discovery.

Eric Reed
One of my favorite jazz quotes is by Tommy Flanagan when he was asked how best to play songs composed by Thelonious Monk. He responded, crossing his arms after some contemplation, “Very carefully”. Since I first came across that quote I’ve used Monk compositions as a measuring stick when I am first introduced to a new pianist. The first time that I saw Eric Reed perform was with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. During the show they played some Monk which I always find thrilling. Eric Reed was naturally leading the way but what struck me as particularly impressive was the ease and confidence with which he played. I’ll never forget his crossed legs toward the side of the stool as he made the challenge of Monk sound so beautiful but look sooooo easy.

The next time I saw Eric live was with his trio. I sat on the stage at a club in Chicago and was lucky enough to be about 18″ away from the left edge of the piano. The close proximity only heightened our awareness for his enormous technique and power. But technique isn’t all Eric Reed is about. His natural musical instincts continually stretch the envelopes of modern harmony and rhythm yet he always creates approachable and lovely stage compositions. One of the top moments of the show was his fresh re-telling of ‘Pure Imagination’ from ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. There was nothing childish in Reed’s rendering of this fable as he crafts it and presents to his audience.

He is also years ahead as a professional showman. Eric Reed engages his audiences not just with his playing but with his charm and warmth. He’s seems to be someone you’d want to have as your friend.

Aaron Goldberg
I’ve only seen Aaron Goldberg as a sideman although he has recorded as a leader. First with violinist Regina Carter and then for the Joshua Redman quartet. In each case Goldberg captured my imagination with his inspired virtuosity. I found myself anxiously waiting the next time the leader was going to give a solo to the pianist. As a sideman Aaron Goldberg is difficult to beat. He’s selfless, open and adaptable to any musical idea, and obviously intelligent in many ways. Yet, I found myself wishing, in both cases, that I were listening to the Aaron Goldberg trio. He has recorded as a leader with his own trio and has been equally modern and enriching. None of the intelligence or wildly flexible mind is lost when he transforms to the trio setting.

Bill Charlap
Bill Charlap seems to draw frequent comparisons to Bill Evans. I don’t think that’s entirely fair to Charlap nor do I think that it is his intention to be derivative of anyone. Bill Charlap simply wants to make great personal jazz music such as when I saw his trio with Paul Gill and Kenny Washington. Charlap has gargantuan ability and a keen respect for the jazz tradition. At the time I saw him he was interested in standards and has a refreshing eagerness to embrace them and tell their story in his own voice. So, although I’ve probably heard ‘Where or When’ dozens of times I found myself enjoying it as if it were the first time via Bill Charlap. There is nothing tired or derivative about this respectful, elegant, generous, and dazzling musician.

Geoff Keezer
Geoff Keezer is one of those explosive talents that seem to know no bounds or constraints. The first time I saw Geoff was with his regular spot in the Ray Brown trio. He was immediately exciting and swung with enormous vigor. But these energies really served to fuel his main artistic direction as a visionary and experimenter. Geoff was the first pianist I ever saw pluck the strings inside the piano! This method really intrigued me especially as he continued to play his chords with his left hand. He continually takes his playing into directions that lesser players would consider risky but Keezer always manages his compositions with reasonableness and logic.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba is not your typical Latin jazz musician. His playing is definitely straight-ahead but with the added fire of his Afro-Cuban sensibilities. This creates a certain element of fun to his playing that is very contagious. Although his background differs from the typical New York-based contemporary jazz pianist he is just as faithful to the jazz tradition. This is his strength as it allows him to introduce his personal visions and feelings onto the matrix of classic jazz compositions and structures. His playing is at once sensitive, modern, imaginative, and above all else fun. The one time that I have seen his trio live was in a concert hall setting which he filled with splendid sounds that contained just the right balance of modern jazz and Cuban accents.